Tag: history

9 of the biggest TV moments in UK electricity history

It’s 1990 and Chris Waddle, England midfielder, steps up to the penalty spot. The 60,000 people in Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi watching him and the fate of England football go silent.

He takes a breath and fires a shot at Bodo Illgner, the German goalkeeper. It careers over the crossbar and misses – England are out of the World Cup. The now famous image of Paul Gascoigne crying into his shirt is beamed across millions of UK television screens.

There’s a shuffling on the sofas in front of those TVs as the population gets up to make a cup of tea, get a drink or turn on the oven. Millions of kettles, lights and fridges are powered up as the country collectively despairs. The demand for electricity across the country soars.
kettle boiling
This is what’s called a ‘TV pickup’ – the moment during a popular television event when there’s a break and viewers unwittingly cause a huge surge of demand from the National Grid.

It’s these moments that have caused some of the biggest spikes in UK electricity demand. Here we look at what’s caused them:


What? Football World Cup Semi Final: England v West Germany
When? Wednesday, 4 July 1990
Electricity demand: 2,800MW – equivalent to 1,120,000 kettles (based on 1MW = 400 kettles), or 4.3 Drax-sized generation units (there are six 645MW units at Drax)

After that fateful penalty miss the population made for the kitchen. The match was watched by an estimated 26 million people in the UK, and when full time was called they caused a 2,800MW surge in electricity demand.


What? The Thorn Birds
When? 22 January 1984
Electricity demand: 2,600MW – 1,040,000 kettles – 4 Drax units

A sleeper hit, The Thorn Birds was a one-off American mini-series about a fictional sheep station in the Australian outback. Based on the novel of the same name, it was broadcast in the UK following building up a huge following in the US when it was aired in 1983. By the time it arrived on UK shores there was clearly enough of that excitement to create a surge of electricity demand – one of the largest in UK TV history.


What? Football World Cup Quarter Final: England v Brazil
When? Friday, 21 June 2002
Electricity demand: 2,570MW – 1,028,000 kettles – 4 Drax units

Broadcast early on a Wednesday morning in the UK due to time differences with South Korea, where the game was played, the match saw England put up a solid fight against overall tournament winners Brazil. A goal from Michael Owen provided early hope and at half time TV viewers left their screens to cause a huge 2,570MW spike in demand. By the time the game had reached its conclusion, Brazil had won thanks to a chipped Ronaldinho free kick that fooled England keeper David Seaman and those viewers who had lasted the duration caused a slightly smaller 2,300MW surge.

Sad couple watching football match on television at home.Four:

What? Eastenders: Lisa admits shooting Phil
When? Thursday, 5 April 2001
Electricity demand: 2,290MW – 916,000 kettles – 3.5 Drax units

In one of the most dramatic plot developments in UK TV history, Lisa Shaw, played by actress Lucy Benjamin, admitted to shooting her former boyfriend, Phil Mitchell. An estimated 22 million viewers turned on to see the dramatic reveal. When it was all over they caused a surge of 2,290MW, more than five times the normal pickup of 400MW seen at the end of an average Eastenders episode.


What? The Darling Buds of May
When? Sunday, 12 May 1991
Electricity demand: 2,200MW – 880,000 kettles – 3.4 Drax units

One of the more wholesome entries to the list, this British comedy drama racked up a huge following during its 20-episode run from 1991 to 1993. The peak was early in the first season, when the third ever episode saw the Larkin family take an unhappy holiday to Brittany. The family’s escapades drew a large audience and prompted a surge equivalent to 880,000 kettles being switched on at the same time.


What? Rugby World Cup Final: England v Australia
When? Saturday, 22 November 2003
Electricity demand: 2,110MW – 844,000 kettles – 3.3 Drax units

A unique sporting entry to the list as England ended as winners. More than 12 million people watched England beat Australia, with the largest electricity demand coming at half time and not at full time, when audiences were presumably still celebrating Jonny Wilkinson’s last minute drop goal.


What? European Football Championship 2020 final: England vs Italy
When? Sunday, 11 July 2021
Electricity demand: 1,800MW – 720,000 kettles – 2.8 Drax units

The most recent heartbreaker for England fans, the match came as COVID-19 restrictions were only beginning to lift around the UK. The team, led by Gareth Southgate, conquered old foes Germany on their way to a final in Wembley, only to lose to Italy on penalties.

The sense of disappointment was almost palpable in the energy demand, peaking at 1,800MW at half-time, when England went into the changing rooms one-nil up. Demand then surged again to 1,200MW at the end of the 90-minute stalemate, followed by a deflated 500MW at the end of the game. Had things gone differently, National Grid ESO was preparing for a peak of 2,000MW.


What? The Royal Wedding – Prince William and Kate
When? Friday, 29 April 2011
Electricity demand: 1,600MW – 640,000 kettles – 2.5 Drax units

The biggest and most celebrated Royal Wedding in a generation, the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton attracted an audience of 24 million in the UK alone. Energy demand peaked at 1,600MW when the bride’s carriage procession returned to Buckingham Palace. This is the largest TV pickup in recent years, which hints at how changing viewer habits, on demand watching and smart TVs are changing the need for power and making TV pickups a rarer occurrence.


What? Clap for carers
When? Thursday, 16 April 2020
Electricity demand: 950MW – 320,000 kettles – 1.5 Drax units

COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns had several interesting effects on the UK’s energy system. One feature was a return in regular demand spikes, with Thursday evenings’ Clap for Carers events prompting notable surges.

The gestures, held at 8pm on Thursdays between 26 March and 28 May 2020, saw millions across the UK stand outside their homes and clap in appreciation of emergency services workers. As people went back inside to put on kettles and turn on TVs electricity demand spiked. The particularly cloudy evening of 16 April saw demand reach 950MW as more people reached for light switches.

How do we deal with TV pickups?

National grid electricty pylon at sunrise

Because the level of electricity needed to power the country can’t be stored, when there is a spike in demand it needs to be met quickly by a similar increase in real time generation.

To manage the supply and demand for events likely to cause electricity surges, the National Grid forecasts electricity need for large events like World Cups and major TV events.

The grid can then put contingency measures in place to manage the huge changes in demand in real time. It does this through a suite of tools called balancing mechanisms, which allows it to access sources of extra power in real-time.

The rise of more energy efficient home appliances and on-demand streaming means that the ‘shape’ of electricity demand has become flatter since the days when most of the country was tuned into the same must-see moments.

However, it’s still crucial for the grid to forecast periods of high demand, when it will keep the necessary power stations on reserve, ready to deliver additional electricity if needed.

If it wasn’t for this careful management of electricity by the grid and the power stations like Drax supplying it, that cup of tea next time England crash out of a major sporting event would not only be tainted with disappointment but cold, too.

14 moments that electrified history

Electricity is such a universal and accepted part of our lives it’s become something we take for granted. Rarely do we stop to consider the path it took to become ubiquitous, and yet through the course of its history there have been several eureka moments and breakthrough inventions that have shaped our modern lives. Here are some of the defining moments in the development of electricity and power.

2750 BC – Electricity first recorded in the form of electric fish

Ancient Egyptians referred to electric catfish as the ‘thunderers of the Nile’, and were fascinated by these creatures. It led to a near millennia of wonder and intrigue, including conducting and documenting crude experiments, such as touching the fish with an iron rod to cause electric shocks.

500 BC – The discovery of static electricity

Around 500 BC Thales of Miletus discovered that static electricity could be made by rubbing lightweight objects such as fur or feathers on amber. This static effect remained unknown for almost 2,000 years until around 1600 AD, when William Gilbert discovered static electricity in earnest.

1600 AD – The origins of the word ‘electricity’

The Latin word ‘electricus’, which translates to ‘of amber’ was used by the English physician, William Gilbert to describe the force exerted when items are rubbed together. A few years later, English scientist Thomas Browne translated this into ‘electricity’ in his written investigations in the field.

1751 – Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Experiments and Observations on Electricity’

This book of Benjamin Franklin’s discoveries made about the behaviour of electricity was published in 1751. The publication and translation of American founding father, scientist and inventor’s letters would provide the basis for all further electricity experimentation. It also introduced a host of new terms to the field including positive, negative, charge, battery and electric shock.

1765 – James Watt transforms the Industrial Revolution

Watt studies Newcomen’s engine

James Watt transformed the Industrial Revolution with the invention of a modified Newcome engine, now known as the Watt steam engine. Machines no longer had to rely on the sometimes-temperamental wind, water or manpower – instead steam from boiling water could drive the pistons back and forth. Although Watt’s engine didn’t generate electricity, it created a foundation that would eventually lead to the steam turbine – still the basis of much of the globe’s electricity generation today.

James Watt’s steam engine

Alessandro Volta

1800 – Volta’s first true battery

Documented records of battery-like objects date back to 250 BC, but the first true battery was invented by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta in 1800. Volta realised that a current was created when zinc and silver were immersed in an electrolyte – the principal on which chemical batteries are still based today.

1800s – The first electrical cars

Breakthroughs in electric motors and batteries in the early 1800s led to experimentation with electrically powered vehicles. The British inventor Robert Anderson is often credited with developing the first crude electric carriage at the beginning of the 19th century, but it would not be until 1890 that American chemist William Morrison would invent the first practical electric car (though it closer resembled a motorised wagon), boasting a top speed of 14 miles per hour.

Michael Faraday

1831 – Michael Faraday’s electric dynamo

Faraday’s invention of the electric dynamo power generator set the precedent for electricity generation for centuries to come. His invention converted motive (or mechanical) power – such as steam, gas, water and wind turbines – into electromagnetic power at a low voltage. Although rudimentary, it was a breakthrough in generating consistent, continuous electricity, and opened the door for the likes of Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan, whose subsequent discoveries would make large-scale electricity generation feasible.

1879 – Lighting becomes practical and inexpensive

Thomas Edison patented the first practical and accessible incandescent light bulb, using a carbonised bamboo filament which could burn for more than 1,200 hours. Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb on 31st December 1879 where he stated that, “electricity would be so cheap that only the rich would burn candles.” Although he was not the only inventor to experiment with incandescent light, his was the most enduring and practical. He would soon go on to develop not only the bulb, but an entire electrical lighting system.

Holborn Viaduct power station via Wikimedia

1882 – The world’s first public power station opens

Holborn Viaduct power station, also known as the Edison Electric Light Station, burnt coal to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. The power was used for Holborn’s newly electrified streetlighting, an idea which would quickly spread around London.

1880s – Tesla and Edison’s current war

Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison waged what came to be known as the current war in 1880s America. Tesla was determined to prove that alternating current (AC) – as is generated at power stations – was safe for domestic use, going against the Edison Group’s opinion that a direct current (DC) – as delivered from a battery – was safer and more reliable.

Inside an Edison power station in New York

The conflict led to years of risky demonstrations and experiments, including one where Tesla electrocuted himself in front of an audience to prove he would not be harmed. The war continued as they fought over the future of electric power generation until eventually AC won.

Nikola Tesla

1901 – Great Britain’s first industrial power station opens

Before Charles Mertz and William McLellan of Merz & McLellan built the Neptune Bank Power Station in Tyneside in 1901, individual factories were powered by private generators. By contrast, the Neptune Bank Power Station could supply reliable, cheap power to multiple factories that were connected through high-voltage transmission lines. This was the beginning of Britain’s national grid system.

1990s – The first mass market electrical vehicle (EV)

Concepts for electric cars had been around for a century, however, the General Motors EV1 was the first model to be mass produced by a major car brand – made possible with the breakthrough invention of the rechargeable battery. However, this EV1 model could not be purchased, only directly leased on a monthly contract. Because of this, its expensive build, and relatively small customer following, the model only lasted six years before General Motors crushed the majority of their cars.

2018 – Renewable generation accounts for a third of global power capacity

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 2018 annual statistics revealed that renewable energy accounted for a third of global power capacity in 2018. Globally, total renewable electricity generation capacity reached 2,351 GW at the end of 2018, with hydropower accounting for almost half of that total, while wind and solar energy accounted for most of the remainder.

How turbines came to power the world

Charles Algernon Parsons knew he was onto something in 1884. The young engineer had joined a ship engineering firm and developed a steam turbine engine, which he immediately saw had a bigger potential than powering boats.

He connected it to a dynamo, turning it into a generator capable of producing up to 7.5 kilowatts (kW) of power, and in the process kickstarted an electrical and mechanical revolution that would reshape how electricity was produced and how the world worked.

Today turbine-based generation is the dominant method for electricity production throughout the world and even now – almost a century and a half later – Parsons’ turbine concept remains largely unchanged, even if the world around it has.

Steam dreams

Throughout the 20th and into the current century, electricity generation has depended on steam power. Be it in a coal, nuclear or biomass power plant, heating water into highly pressurised steam is at the core of production.

Greek mathematician and inventor Hero of Alexandria is cited as building the first ever steam engine of sorts with his aeolipile, which used steam to spin a hollow metal sphere. But it wasn’t until the 18th century, when English ironmonger Thomas Newcomen designed an – albeit inefficient – engine to pump water out of flooded mines, that steam became a credible power in industry.

Scottish engineer James Watt, from whose name the unit of energy comes from, built on these humble beginnings and turned steam into the power behind the industrial revolution around 1764 when he added an condensing chamber to Newcomen’s original design.

It was the combination of this engine with Thomas Edison’s electrical generator late in the 19th century that first made large-scale electricity production from steam a reality.

The turbine takes over

Steam engines and steam power was not a new concept when Parson began his explorations in the space. In fact, nor were steam turbines. Others had explored ways to use stream’s velocity to spin blades rather than using its pressure to pump pistons, in turn allowing rotors to spin at much greater speeds while requiring less raw fuel.

What made Parsons’ design so important was its ability to keep rotational speeds moderate while also extracting as much kinetic energy from steam jets as possible.

He explained in a 1911 Rede Lecture that this was done by “splitting up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series,” which ensured there was no one place the velocity of the blades was too great.

The design’s strength was also apparent at scale. In 1900 his company (which was eventually acquired by Siemens) was building turbine-generator units capable of producing 1,000 kW of electricity. By 1912, however, the company was installing a 25,000 kW unit for the City of Chicago. Parsons would live to see units reach 50,000 kW and become the primary source of electricity generation around the world.

Turbines in the modern grid

The world is a vastly different place to the one in which Parson designed his turbine, yet the fundamentals of his concept have changed very little. The results of what they achieve and the scales at which they work, however, have increased significantly.

Today the turbines that make up Drax’s six generating units are each capable of producing more than 600 MW (or 6,000,000 kW) of electricity with the shape, materials and arrangement of blades carefully designed to maximise efficiency.

And while that first design was purely with steam in mind, turbine technology has advanced beyond dependency on a single power source, and has been developed to accommodate for the shift towards lower-carbon power sources.

One such example is gas turbines, which work by sucking in air through a compressor, which is then heated by burning natural gas, in turn spinning a turbine as it expands. These can jump into action much faster than other turbines as they don’t require any steam to be created to power them.

Renewable sources, such as hydro and wind power, also depend on spinning turbines to generate electricity. Where these differ from gas or steam-powered turbines is that rather than being encased in metal and blasted with gases, wind and hydro turbines’ blades are exposed, so flowing air or water can spin them, powering a generator in turn.

Turbine technology helped bring access to electricity around the world, but the ingenuity and flexibility of the design means it is now serving to adapt electricity production for the post-coal age.

Drax: A rail history

Railways in Great Britain today are often seen as unreliable or chaotic, yet they remain a vital part of the lives of the population and the economy of the country.

When rail transport first arrived in earnest in the 19th century, it suddenly allowed goods from around the world, as well as people, to quickly cross the country. It reshaped perceptions of the country’s geography, unlocked the population and accelerated industries.

Over time, however, the role of the railways has diminished, owing largely to the massive rise in car ownership and the shifting of freight onto the road. But that is not to say it has completely lost its importance.

With 6,000 trains passing through Drax Power Station every year, rail is still integral to Drax and the region around it. In fact, since the very first introduction of the railways to the region it has played a major part in shaping the landscape.

A village with two stations

Before the construction of the power station or nationalisation of the railways, Drax village was well-connected, with two different railway lines running through it: the North Eastern Railway (NER) Selby to Goole line, and the Hull and Barnsley Railway’s Doncaster to Hull line.

Each of these lines ran through a different station with NER calling at Drax Hales Station while Hull and Barnsley called at Drax Abbey Station. But, following nationalisation and British Rail’s modernisation plans, Drax Abbey Station, which had closed to passengers in 1931, closed to goods traffic in 1959. Drax Hales Station followed suit in 1964 when it was closed as part of what became known as the Beeching Axe.

“British Rail chairman Richard Beeching famously carried out a review of Britain’s railways in the 60s and as a result closed vast quantities of – what he considered – uneconomical lines,” explains Andrew Christian, FGD & By-products Section Head at Drax Power Station and expert on the area’s history. “At that time oil was cheap, people were increasingly using cars and motorways were being constructed. Nobody really foresaw the rail demand that would be needed in the future to serve the power station.”

Daleks on a merry-go-round

In the 1960s and 70s, with the planning and construction of Drax Power Station underway, there was a new need for railways in bringing coal from the new Selby coalfield. This resulted in the reopening of a closed part of the Hull and Barnsley line for four miles from a reinstated junction at Hensall. Known as Hensall Junction it was renamed Drax Power Station Branch Junction and later shorted to Drax Branch Junction.

A rail system known as a ‘MGR loop’ was installed on the power station grounds, which allows trains to loop around the station and deposit coal – today also wood pellets – without stopping.

The ‘merry-go-round’ trains as they are known, were originally made up of 40, four-wheeled merry-go-round (MGR) hopper wagons. These were much smaller than the wagons that carry biomass from ports to power stations today, and more than 11,000 MGRs where built to serve coal power stations around Great Britain.

Photo by Andrew Brade, Railway Engineer at Drax Power Station

The open-topped wagons were each capable of carrying 33 tonnes of pulverised coal, which was automatically released thanks to a piece of machinery alongside the track colloquially known as ‘Daleks’ thanks to their resemblance to the Dr Who villain.

But as the power station began to change and evolved to fit the modern world, so too did the railway serving it.

Rail at Drax beyond coal

The original Drax rail loop was a single track, with three coal unloading points. By 1993 there was 14.5 km of track with 27 sets of points and crossings allowing trains to switch rails, thanks to the double tracked loop and extra tracks laid to serve traffic taking limestone in and gypsum out from the power station. This was further expanded with the introduction of biomass and a new double track and unloading facility in 2013.

The biomass trains are specially designed to keep compressed wood pellets dry and they are much longer than their MGR predecessors. At 18.2 meters long, their capacity is 30% greater than a coal wagon. It means the 23-wagon trains bringing biomass to the power stations from Tyne, Hull, Immingham and Liverpool’s ports are a quarter of a mile long.

It might be a far cry from the heyday in which the railways crisscrossed the region, but they remain a vital part of the area. And while the area’s original lines are now 50 years dormant, their remnants are still visible in the lasting impact they’ve left on the surrounding landscape.

Many of the embankments and bridges found in and around Drax stem from those first railway lines, while much of the A645 road that was constructed in the early 1990s runs along the track bed of NER’s route to Goole.

Photos by Andrew Brade, Railway Engineer at Drax Power Station

The trains might not stop in Drax Village anymore, but they remain a vital part of the landscape, and how it’s powered.

Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry was in Yorkshire on 5 July 2018 to unveil the first Drax freight wagons with ‘Northern Powerhouse’ branding to deliver biomass to the power station. Read more.

How a small Yorkshire village became home to Britain’s air power innovation

Picture an airship. Massive and slow moving, it makes its way across skies. It’s a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from the speed and innovation of today’s air transport.

But go back a century and airships were not only the height of technology, they were also a key part of Britain’s aerial war effort.

Part of this innovation can be traced back to the Yorkshire village of Barlow, which was the site of a factory that built the vessels during the First World War. Three riged-structure airships where constructed and took flight during the factory’s history and this October marks the centenary of the first airship flight at the site in 1917.

This is the story of how a stretch of land by the small Yorkshire village near Selby became the frontline for innovation in British military aviation.

The Admiralty marches in

During the First World War, the German zeppelin fleet posed a very real threat to the people of Britain. More reliable than the aeroplanes of the time, hydrogen-filled airships’ ability to hold heavy loads and remain airborne for periods of 20-plus hours allowed them to carry out strategic bombing campaigns.

While the actual effectiveness of these raids on the UK mainland remains questionable, the psychological impact of the zeppelins’ abilities to attack UK cities pushed the military to respond. In early 1916, at the request of the Admiralty, the Armstrong-Whitworth Airship Department was formed to build zeppelin-style aircraft.

To set about constructing the airship, Armstrong-Whitworth acquired a large area of ground in Barlow village. Within six months of the initial Admiralty instructions, the airship shed was completed. It was the start of a century of industrial innovation in the area.

Changing the area

Up until the beginning of the 20th century, Barlow was almost exclusively agricultural, but the construction of the Selby-Goole railway line changed that. It suddenly connected the area as never before and enabled Armstrong-Whitworth to establish the 880-acre airship facility.

Along with a 700-foot shed, the site also included workshops, offices, living quarters for the workers and managers, and eight huge mooring blocks for the airships. It was an immediate change to the landscape, but it had a greater impact than just its physical footprint. Between 1911 and 1951 Barlow saw a 36% population increase – thought to be a result of the new military presence.

The First World War also began to change the demographics of the area. With more than 2 million men conscripted into the army during the conflict, women began to take up the traditionally male-held industrial jobs. When the war ended in November 1918, Armstrong-Whitworth employed 1,500 people – over 1,000 of those were women.

The airships take flight

Four airships were constructed over Barlow’s lifetime as a military facility, three of which made it to the air:

  • 25r

The 25r first took flight on 14 October 1917, but it encountered problems from the start. In the same manner as its predecessor the 23r, the craft did not have enough lift in trials. Subsequently, dynamos, bomb gear and furniture where stripped out to reduce the weight enabling the ship to make its first flight.

Despite later stability issues, the 25r served between December 1917 and September 1919, clocking up more than 221 hours of flight time and covering almost 9,500 kilometres.

  • R29

Armstrong-Whitworth’s next aircraft would prove to be one of Britain’s most successful riged-framed airships. Commissioned on 20 June 1918, the R29 flew for 335 hours and covered more than 13,000 kilometres in its five-month operational career.

During this time the R29 encountered German U-boats on three occasions. While the first escaped, the second struck a mine when pursued by the airship. The R29 attacked and destroyed a third U-boat off the coast of Northumberland in September 1918, dropping two 100 kilogram bombs on the UB115 submarine and recording the only success of any British wartime riged airship.

  • R33 

Designs for the R33 were well underway by September 1916, when the German L33 zeppelin was brought down in Essex while on a London-bombing raid. Despite the crew’s efforts to destroy the airship, it fell into British hands virtually intact, offering a trove of potential secrets.

Adapted with the information learned from the downed L33, the R33 was eventually completed after the November 1918 armistice, but nevertheless went on to operate for 10 years – longer than any other British riged airship.

Used with the kind permission of the Airship Heritage Trust

Taking flight for the first time on 6 March 1919, the R33 was initially used to promote ‘Victory Bonds’ around the country before being demilitarised.

Famously, the R33 was torn from its mast at Pulham in a gale and blown out over the North Sea. It took a partial crew 28 hours to eventually steer the damaged airship back to Pulham.

From military camp to nature reserve

Following the First World War, the land around Barlow was sold off to civilian firms until 1938 when the then-named ‘War Department’ took over the area to set up an army ordnance and command supply depot.

By the 60s, however, the UK’s need for military manufacturing had reduced. Instead, with increasing demand for power and rich coal seams found there, Barlow and the surrounding area became the site of what would become the UK’s biggest power station: Drax. Construction of Drax Power Station began exactly 50 years after the first Barlow airship took flight – and half a century ago from the present day.

Barlow Mound, which held the airship construction facility, is now a unique nature reserve under which Drax Power Station can safely store the ash created from generating power.

And while airships may seem like relics of a long-gone era of British skies, the vessels could be on the verge of a resurgence. The British-built Airlander 10 – an airship-aeroplane hybrid – is the longest aircraft in the world and recently received the green light from the European Aviation Safety Agency to start carrying out customer trials and demonstrations.

It can now fly at an elevation of 2,136m, up to 50 knots and 75 nautical miles away from its Bedfordshire airfield (which is located around eight miles from the proposed site of Millbrook Power, a Drax rapid response gas project). Perhaps a new golden era is on the horizon for British airships.

Vikings, airships and ash: the history of Barlow Mound

Airship at Barlow Mound

Barlow Mound is a haven for wildlife. More than 100 different species call it home, including kingfishers, roe deer and falcons. It’s an area that looks like it’s never been touched by the industrialisation that surrounds it. The truth is very different.

Barlow mound is manmade. It was built in the 1970s using residue material from its neighbour Drax Power Station. It’s a success story of using what was then considered a waste material to create something natural and beautiful. But it has a long history before becoming what it is today and to explore that history is to track the outlook of the UK over the last millennium.

The military moves in

The area around Barlow and Drax was an important location for the very first Viking explorers who arrived here from the North Sea via the region’s Ouse and Aire rivers. But it wasn’t until 1086 that it received its first recorded mention, when it was listed as ‘Berlai-leag’ in the Domesday Book.

Translating to ‘a clearing where barley grew’, it was named by Anglo Saxon settlers, who established the region as a mix of farmland, fields and woodlands and it remained agricultural until the early twentieth century, when the country was plunged into war.

When the First World War began in 1914 and the need for new war machines arose, Sir W G Armstrong Whitworth & Co Ltd, a manufacturing company which had obtained the land in 1913 from the estate of Lord Londesborough, set up an airship factory on the site.

During its lifetime the factory constructed three airships, the 25r, R29 and R33, but when WWI ended and demand for airships sank, the factory shut down and the land passed to the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

During the Second World War the area became an important location in the country’s war efforts once again. The MOD set up an army ordnance and command supply depot manufacturing and storing items like mess tins and kerosene lamps. At one point the site also included a Prisoner of War camp.

By the 60s the UK’s needs for defence manufacturing had subsided. Instead, what it needed was more power. With the rich coal seams of the area and the existing rail network (the Hull-Barnsley line ran through), building a power station in the Barlow area was an obvious solution.

First-of-a-kind solution

In 1967 the land was bought by the Central Electric Generating Board (CEGB) which began the construction of Drax Power Station. One of the early challenges it faced was how to minimise the environmental impact to the surrounding countryside.

In particular, it needed a solution for the tonnes of ash that came from the burning of coal fuel, which included both pulverised fuel ash (PFA) and furnace bottom ash (FBA). The answer was a first-of-a-kind: build a mound using the materials.

Construction on Barlow Mound began in 1974. First the existing top soil was removed and preserved for later use, drains were added and then a layer of FBA was laid.

Next conditioned PFA was added and moulded to suit the original design, never reaching higher than 36 metres. At this height the mound would visually obscure the power station from the neighbouring houses.

The final step was to seal the mound with a polymer and then reintroduce the top soil before grass, trees and hedgerow were planted. The trees and plants had been carefully tested to ensure that their roots wouldn’t interfere with the ash and compromise the integrity of the structure.

Roe deer walking in grass field

An ecologically important area

As time has passed and Drax Power Station has produced more ash, the mound has developed and grown. More than 301 million m3 is stored in the current site – more than the capacity of three million double decker buses.

In addition to the 100 species living on the site, a tenant farmer works 20 fields and a swan rescue and wildlife hospital rehabilitates up to 2,000 birds a year. More recently, the Skylark Centre and Nature Reserve has now opened up the area to the public to explore walking trails and see the nature first-hand.

Barlow is an area that has changed consistently since 1086. From the North’s early beginnings as an agricultural hub and Anglo-Saxon settlement, to the necessity for large-scale power solutions and to the importance of preserving local ecology, Barlow is an area that has been characterised by the outlook of the country.

Like Drax Power Station, to which it is intrinsically linked, Barlow Mound is a part of the Northern Yorkshire landscape – literally and figuratively.

The turbulent history of coal

Aerial view of coal field

**9 May 2019 update: we have updated this story to mark the new GB record of continuous coal-free hours since 1882**

3490 BC

Households in China work out how to use coal for heat. The coal was bulky to transport, so settlements near forests probably burned it less often than wood.

4th century BC

Greek scientist Theophrastus makes a reference to coal as a fuel in his treatise, ‘On Stones’.

2nd century AD

By the 2nd century AD, the Romans were using coal from most of the main coalfields in Britain. Archaeologists have found flint axes from before the Roman era still embedded in coal. There is evidence that at this time people dug up coal on beaches then followed the seam of coal inland, encouraging them to investigate more sophisticated ways to mine it.

First millennium

Although it’s hard to date them precisely, early mines called ‘bell pits’ – deep holes which tapered outward at the bottom like a bell to provide a bigger surface area for mining – began to appear in the early part of the first millennium. These were lit by large candles burning animal fat and were dangerous: rocks could fall onto the miners and sometimes the pit would collapse entirely.

13th and 14th centuries

Room and pillar mines emerged as larger, more sophisticated versions of bell pits. In these pillars of coal were left standing to support the roof.

16th century

From the 1500s, mining expanded significantly. At this time coal was mostly used for heat by less well-off people. One observer wrote in 1587 that old men told him about “the multitude of chimneys lately erected, whereas in their young days there were not above two or three, if so many, in most uplandish towns of the realm.”


Great Britain was producing 2.7 million tonnes of coal per year, mostly for use in metal production.


In just half a century Britain ramps up coal production: it was producing 4.7 million tonnes of coal per year.

1763 to 1775

James Watt develops his steam engine, which was used to drain mines. Despite this, flooding remained a problem.


By the turn of the nineteenth century, Great Britain was producing 10 million tonnes of coal, driven by the rising demand of the Industrial Revolution. From about 1800, miners began to leave timber supports in place to hold up the roof of their pits, allowing them to follow coal seams deep into the earth. This was known as longwall mining.


Sir Humphrey Davy invents his safety lamp. It had a wire gauze around it so the flame would not encounter any gas and cause explosions. It became known as “the Miners’ Friend”.


Great Britain was producing 50 million tonnes of coal.


The world’s first steam driven power station was built on coal at Holborn Viaduct in London. It had a 27 tonne generator, enough to light 1,000 lamps. Later it was expanded to power 3,000. A second coal-fired power station opened later that year in the United States at Pearl Street Station in New York City. It initially served a load of 400 lamps and 82 customers but by 1884 it was powering more than 10,000 lamps.


Great Britain was producing 250 million tonnes of coal.


All Great British coal mines were nationalised (bought by the government) and placed under the control of the National Coal Board.


After the Selby coalfield was discovered in 1967, Drax Power Station was opened.

coal locomotive on rail tracks


Drax became the first coal-fired power station to install flue-gas desulphurisation technology, which removes 90% of coal’s harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions.


From the eighties onwards, many coal mines closed and in 1994, British Coal (the successor to the National Coal Board) was privatised.


As a result of UK mine closures and proposed emissions regulations coming into force from 2008, power stations started to increase the amount of coal they imported. Drax Power Station’s supply was initially split between 50% indigenous coal and 50% imported. There was a steadily increasing emphasis on imports for the decade thereafter.


The Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD) came into force across the EU, limiting emissions of SO2, NOx and particulates.


The Drax team successfully adapted the boilers of the plant to combust wood pellets. This was proof that a coal-fired power plant could be converted to biomass.

March 2013

The White Rose carbon capture and storage (CCS) project was announced as one of two preferred bidders in the UK’s £1bn CCS Competition. This project looked to build a new 448 MWe coal-fired power station with CCS capabilities on the existing Drax Power Station site in Yorkshire. With CCS technology installed, the power station would be able to capture and safely store carbon emissions underground rather than releasing them into the atmosphere.

1st April 2013

The Carbon Price Floor was launched in the UK. A tax on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, it is designed to provide an incentive to invest in low-carbon power generation.

September 2015

Due to reduced renewable subsidies, Drax withdrew from the White Rose CCS project.

18th November 2015

The UK government announced its intention to close all unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025 and restrict their usage from 2023 to meet the challenge of climate change. Drax aims to end its reliance on coal even quicker. Drax CEO Dorothy Thompson has talked about the possibility, given the right support, to have all coal units taken off the Drax system by 2020, if not before.

25th November 2015

The UK government cancelled its £1bn competition for CCS technology.

18th December 2015

On this day the last large scale deep coal mine in Great Britain – Kellingley in North Yorkshire – closed. UK producers were struggling to compete with lower priced, lower nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitting coal from oversees.

1st January 2016

The Industrial Emissions Directive is enforced in the UK and the rest of the European Union, putting stricter limits on the amount of NOx emitted into the atmosphere. From this point on coal power stations can either limit their availability to generate electricity or invest to adapt their boilers and use emissions abatement technologies.

May 2016

Great Britain saw its first day generating electricity without using any coal since the opening of the first UK power station in 1882.

September 2016

Drax and other energy companies write to the UK government in support of maintaining, rather than scrapping, the Carbon Price Floor.

April 2017

The first coal-free 24-hour period on Great Britain’s electricity system since 1882.

April 2018

UK government minister Claire Perry announced Drax had joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, just three days after Great Britain’s fourth 24 hours free from the carbon-intensive fuel.

May 2019

A new coal-free record for Britain’s electricity system of 8 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes.

Present day

Drax Power Station is Europe’s largest decarbonisation project. Four of its six electricity generation units now run exclusively on biomass – reducing carbon emissions by more than 80%. Currently 75% of its electricity per year is generated using renewable, rather than fossil fuel. The last two coal units could be turned off by 2023.

The single biggest transformation of our century

At the turn of the millennium, Drax was facing a serious issue. Demand for electricity was high and increasing, but so was the desire for sources of power that were less harmful to the environment than coal, at that time Drax’s fuel.

To continue to meet demand in a cleaner and more sustainable way, an alternative approach was needed. Drax had a legacy in this field – in 1988, it was the first coal-fired power station to install flue-gas desulphurisation technology, which removes 90% of coal’s harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions.

In the two decades that followed, however, the sustainability conversation moved beyond how to make coal cleaner. Instead, the focus was finding a truly viable alternative fuel.

Finding a new fuel

In those early days, the idea of converting a fully coal-fired station to another fuel seemed outlandish to say the least.

“We made a lot of people’s heads hurt with this project,” says Drax Strategic Projects Engineering Manager Jason Shipstone. “No one had the answers. It was a bit like going for a walk but not knowing where you’re going.” Back then it was all about experimentation.

Jim Price, Alternative Fuel manager at the time, explains: “Initially, we found a few distressed cargos of wood pellets and sunflower husks that someone had ordered but didn’t want. We mixed that with coal at very low concentration.”

Price and his team found they could use the plant-based fuel alongside coal at low percentages without it detrimentally affecting the boilers. It was a long way from being a new business model, but it was a start. They spent the next year working with willow wood, a subsidized energy crop that proved difficult to turn into a fuel that could be used efficiently to power a boiler.

Then in 2005, after building a prototype plant and finding a way to pulverise the willow into a fine powder – called wood flour – and combine it with coal dust, the team hit its first key milestone. It was able to power a Drax boiler.

“That was the Eureka moment,” says Price.

“No one had the answers. It was a bit like going for a walk but not knowing where you’re going.”

A change in attitude

The response to the success was immediate. Senior management support for the project had been in place from the beginning, but now there was a change across the whole company. “People started to think maybe it can be done,” says Price.

Work continued on the project and – after more experiments – Drax eventually settled on compressed wood pellets. This form of biomass ultimately required investment in four vast storage domes that between them store 80,000 tonnes of pellets.

Then there was the issue of supply and delivery. Materials were sourced from the US, shipped to the UK, then freighted to the plant in specially designed covered train wagons, each carrying up to 7,600 tonnes.

“Everything else had to carry on as normal. This had to be seamless. We had to work the same as Drax has always worked – reliable and available,” says Shipstone.

Jason Shipstone, Drax Strategic Projects Manager, played an instrumental role in upgrading Drax.

Jason Shipstone, Drax Strategic Projects Manager, played an instrumental role in upgrading Drax.

The final hurdle

In 2009 the team overcame one of the final challenges, and successfully adapted the boilers to combust the new fuel, proving that co-firing (the process of using two fuels powering one boiler – in this case wood pellets and coal) could work. It was enough to show there was a future in wood pellets and it could work at scale.

Although nothing was fully built yet, but Dorothy Thompson, CEO of Drax, was convinced. Shipstone remembers the conversation after Thompson signed the contract to begin the transition in earnest. “’So we can do 10%. What does it take to get to 50%?’ she asked,” recalls Shipstone. His response? No problem. “It was the right answer,” he says.

Toward a coal-free future

Fast forward to 2016, and Drax is Europe’s largest decarbonisation project – reducing emissions by at least 80% of the 12 million tonnes of carbon dioxide that the three, now converted, former coal generation units would have released per year. Although only half of Drax’s six units have been upgraded from coal to use compressed wood pellets, 65% of the electricity generated at the power station is the result of a renewable, rather than a fossil fuel. Its three biomass units produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of four million homes – or more than half of all residential properties in northern England.

Given the challenges the world faces regarding the future of energy production, decisive action is required if we’re to meet carbon reduction targets. In the UK the government has voiced ambitions of phasing out coal by 2025. Drax has aims of doing it quicker. Thompson has spoken of plans that see all coal units taken off the Drax system by 2020, if not before.

The story of energy since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has been one of fossil fuels. This simply has to change. By finding a way to ease the transition away from coal, Drax is helping to write the next chapter.