Event Organiser: ICE

Smeaton Lecture - Coal-fired Power Generation in the UK: the beginning and the end


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Add to Calendar 20-07-2021 18:00 20-07-2021 19:00 false Europe/London Smeaton Lecture - Coal-fired Power Generation in the UK: the beginning and the end From James Watt steam condenser to the world’s first coal-fired power station, Smeatonian John Baxter will be illustrating all challenges and successes faced by power engineers from the 18th century up until our current day.
  • Lecture
  • Watch online
  • 20 July 2021
  • 18:00 - 19:00
James Watt patented a steam engine

About this event

When the Romans invaded Britain they discovered extensive coal fields. By the 18th century coal was the main source of heat and power and in 1769 James Watt patented a steam engine utilising a separate steam condenser which revolutionised energy production. However it wasn’t until over a century later in 1882 that the world’s first coal-fired power station generating electricity for public use was opened at Holborn Viaduct, London.

From there coal production and electricity generation from coal grew exponentially. By 1920 almost 100% of electricity came from coal. With energy consumption growing at an enormous rate and Britain’s economy stabilised post WW2 a massive programme to build new coal fired power stations was started. Production stayed above 90% until the late 1950’s as nuclear began to supplement coal. In the late 1980’s the ‘dash for gas’ was enabled and renewables began to appear as potentially commercially viable. From there climate change and the focus on CO2 emissions rang the death knell for the use of coal.

The drive and determination of the UK’s power engineers shows as much ingenuity and invention as their Smeatonian forebears and other early engineers. Significant engineering and operational challenges were faced and overcome to provide the nation with continuous and inexpensive electricity from coal. Most people have no idea what is involved in getting electricity to the lightbulb in their house.

John Baxter will plot the journey of coal-fired electricity production in the UK and use the Drax powers station to illustrate the challenges and successes faced by power engineers. He will also give an insight into Biomass power generation, combined with Carbon Capture and Storage and the potential for a “negative emissions” power plant that could be the hub of a zero emissions industrial region.


18:00 Chair’s introduction

18:05 John Baxter The rise and fall of UK coal-fired power generation 45mins

18:50 Q&A session

19:25 Vote of thanks Smeatonians society

19:27 Closing remarks from Chair

19:30 Event ends


Rachel Skinner

Rachel Skinner

Chair-ICE President

Rachel Skinner is a chartered engineer and the UK Head of Transport at WSP. She is also a Commissioner for the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland. In 2016, Rachel was named as one of The Telegraph’s inaugural Top 50 Influential Women in Engineering and in 2017 she was named as “Most Distinguished Winner” and “Best Woman in Civil Engineering” at the European Women in Construction and Engineering Awards. In 2019 she was confirmed by the Financial Times as one of the UK’s Top 100 Women in Engineering. She has authored and co-authored influential publications on future mobility and place-making, digital potential, industry innovation and collaboration. She remains involved with strategic projects for clients across the public and private sectors, including leadership of a fast-growing portfolio of future mobility projects in the UK and overseas.

John Baxter

John Baxter

Mechanical and nuclear engineer non- Executive Director Sellafield Ltd and Drax plc Boards

John is a mechanical and nuclear engineer and is a non- Executive Director on the Sellafield Ltd and Drax plc Boards. He was President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2007/8), President of the Welding Institute (2010/13), Master of the Worshipful Company of Engineers (2014/15) and Master of the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers (2018/19). He was previously at BP plc as Group Head of Engineering & Process Safety; prior to which he worked at the UK utility Powergen plc as Group Engineering Director; and before that as a UKAEA Board member where he was also on the Board of the Atomic Weapon Establishments. The Royal Navy sponsored his engineering studies at Strathclyde University and he subsequently served at sea as a Polaris Submarine Engineer officer.

He is a Chartered Engineer, Fellow of both the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society of Edinburgh; was awarded Honorary Doctorates from the Robert Gordon Institute and Strathclyde University; and was awarded a CBE in 2016 for services to Engineering, Education and the Energy Sector. Drax Power Station was the largest coal-fired power station in the UK and is now the largest Biomass Power Station in the world; Powergen was a UK based utility with several large coal-fired power stations in England and others around the world. John has been involved with energy production in one form or another for almost 5 decades and is therefore uniquely placed to provide an insight into coal-fired power and more recent technologies such as biomass and carbon capture and storage.

For more information please contact:

Megan Gilligan

e: [email protected]