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A brief history of energy

By Marta Moses | Posted August 22, 2018

Ever wondered when the first solar cell was created? Or when we first had radiators at home? The way we use energy like electricity and gas today has a fascinating history – from the first fire made by man to the smart tech we use today. If you're interested in the history of wind turbines, the history of solar panels or just energy in general – you'll love our brief history of energy!

Together in electric dreams - the history of energy in the UK from fossil fuels to Net Zero

There's a global effort to cut carbon emissions for good and avoid climate catastrophe, as COP26 last year showed. Energy is a vital part of this journey. The story of the transition from fossil fuels like coal and oil to cleaner, renewable and nuclear energy sources will make the history books. But where does energy come from? What's the history of energy use by humans? Why is it important? Knowing where energy comes from helps us understand how we can use it in the future to transform lives and our planet for the better.

In the beginning, there was sun, water and wood

The sun and water were the first energy sources for life on Earth. Later, early humans burned wood for heat. A bit later, people used flowing water to make their mills turn.

Fossil fuels and the dawn of coal

After they invaded Britain in 43 AD, the Romans realised that coal provided superior heat to wood. They used it to heat baths and for the iron forging of battle equipment and ornaments. In the Middle Ages, between the 11th and 13th centuries, charcoal accelerated the earliest industries of glass and brick production. Wood was used as a fuel but also used in shipbuilding, which pushed up the price. In fact, there was an energy crisis around 1550 due to a lack of firewood supply, which lasted until the end of the 17th century. It was during this time that coal mining gained ground, coming in cheaper and more available than wood as an energy source.

Burn Baby Burn the first electric power for industry and transport

The Industrial Revolution was the new age for human-generated, coal-powered electricity. From 1750, coal was used to power tools and machines and in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is credited with discovering electric power from the sparks produced by lightning strikes.

In 1769, James Watt patented the world’s first coal-powered steam engine. With that came powerful and efficient machines for factories and mills. Between 1769 and 1800, British coal production doubled - and that was only the beginning of its exponential growth, from 12 million Mega-tonnes in 1800 to nearly 300 million Mt in 1913.

When did the UK start to use gas?

In 1812, Frederick Winsor created the first company in the world to build public gas works and distribution through pipe networks. This opened up the markets for gas, but it would also transform the everyday lives of millions of people for the better with access to reliable light, heat and energy. (Pretty impressive when this is also the period Britain was at war with Napoleon!)

Gas was used to light London’s streets, and by 1827, London’s network provided gas to almost 70,000 streetlights.

Let there be light and heat, everywhere! The Victorian period

The Victorian period brought enormous advancements in energy across the globe. The first hydroelectric plant started operating in Cragside in the UK. The world’s first coal-fired power station, the Edison Electric Light Station, was built in London in 1882, bringing light and warmth to London homes.

Strong and stable- the National Grid opens its doors

The 20th century brought with it a flurry of energy innovation. Electricity was now pumping to people’s homes and businesses through electricity pylons.

The first integrated National Grid was launched in 1935. Rather than having a host of small power stations, seven grid areas were created in Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, London and Glasgow. Thanks to the National Grid, energy supplies became cheaper and more stable.

Reducing carbon emissions UK renewable energy

1958 saw the first US satellite use solar energy as its power source. However, back in the UK, coal and gas continued to dominate energy supply throughout the late 1900s. By 1960, 90% of all power was from coal. However, during the 1970s, the focus on climate change highlighted pollution from fossil fuels and the need for cleaner, renewable energy.

Wind power

Wind power is a low-carbon and plentiful source of energy that will never run out. This makes it an important part of the future energy mix – especially as technologies like battery storage, are developed to make renewable power sources more reliable. The world’s first wind farm opened in New Hampshire in 1980, shortly followed by the UK’s first wind farm in 1991, located on the blustery Cornish coast. Wind is now the largest source of renewable electricity in the UK. EDF alone runs 36 wind farms – including two offshore wind farms across the UK.

Solar power

Solar power represented only a very small part of electricity production in the UK until the 2010s, when it increased significantly. The first large solar farm in the UK, a 32 MW solar farm, started construction in November 2012. This farm is located in Leicestershire, between the runways of the former military airfield, Wymeswold.

Currently, the UK's renewable energy sector is thriving, with increased investment and generation. 2019 heralded a milestone when, for the first time, in both the UK and the US, more energy was generated from zero-carbon sources than from fossil fuels. By using a mix of renewable and nuclear sources to power our energy, we’re well placed to meet our 2050 UK target for Net Zero total emissions.

Nuclear energy in the UK

Britain was home to the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power plant in the 1950s, and over the past sixty years, it has continued to play an important role in the UK’s energy mix as the most reliable, low-carbon energy source currently available to the UK. In 2020, EDF's eight nuclear power stations generated enough low-carbon electricity for 44% of UK homes. We're proud to be Britain's biggest energy generator from wind, nuclear and solar.


A future of Net Zero carbon emissions

As one of the UK's leading renewable energy companies, EDF Renewables runs wind, solar and battery storage projects all over the UK. Around 20% of the UK's electricity is generated by our eight nuclear power stations, and we're building a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C and planning a second at Sizewell C. To help Britain achieve Net Zero, we must do things differently and use less energy. We’re here to help – making it easier for people to find the tips, tools and tech they need to cut out the carbon.

Do your bit for Net Zero

There are loads of things you can do at home to lower your carbon. Even small changes can make a huge difference to your carbon footprint:

  • Heat your home the low-carbon way

Cut your home's carbon footprint and lower your energy bills with electric heating and home insulation.

  • Drive electric

Driving electric cars and other vehicles (EVs) will help cut Britain’s carbon emissions. We have everything you need to drive electric – leasing deals, home charging points and EV tariffs to suit your lifestyle.

  • Get a smart meter

Smart meters track your energy use in real-time, showing you what you're using and when in pounds and pence.

It'll take commitment, investment and positive actions from every single one of us to cut carbon emissions for good. And we believe we can do it! Learn more about everything we're doing to help Britain achieve Net Zero.

Achieving net zero