The Way of Electricity
At the beginning of the 20th century electricity went from being a rare luxury to an everyday necessity. New electric tramways, urban railways, a boom in new housing and industry needs meant a much greater demand for electricity.
Before the 1920s there were only a few small scale hydro-electric schemes providing power to local industries and these were often in remote areas due to the conditions needed for hydro-electric schemes. North Wales with its mountain lakes and high rainfall was ideal for the generation of electricity, but far from the urban centres where the demand was. After the Electricity Supply Act of 1926 established a co-ordinated national electricity grid network (the National Grid), providing links across the country, hydro-electric development grew. The North Wales Electric Power Company subsequently built large scale hydro-electric power stations at Maentwrog and Trawsfynydd between 1926 and 1928, which provided power to the National Grid. As a result of the grid, by 1933, about half the houses in Wales had electricity and industrial processes were freed from using steam power.
In 1948 the electricity supply industry was nationalised and the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) was created. In the same year the Scottish engineer James Williamson who was the foremost expert of his day on hydro-electric generation in the UK was commissioned to carry out a survey of six possible hydro-electric sites in North Wales. Bills to allow these to go ahead were put before parliament in 1952 and 1955. In the debates over the North Wales Hydro-electric Power Bill, 1952, Sir Gerald Nabarro stated that:
“It is the intention of the British Electricity Authority to create in North Wales no fewer than eight major hydro-electricity establishments. They are the extension to the Maentwrog scheme, the extension to the Dolgarrog scheme, a new scheme at Ffestiniog; then, if those three schemes are approved, the British Electricity Authority will proceed with a new major scheme at Rheidol, followed by new schemes at Mawddach and Conway, and, finally, the schemes on Snowdon itself and at Nant Ffrancon.”
In 1957 the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) took over responsibilities from the CEA, and between 1957 and 1963 the first pumped storage hydro-electric power station in Britain was built at Ffestiniog. By this time it was hoped hydro-electric power would complement the less flexible developing nuclear power industry.
The idea of a scheme at Dinorwig was proposed by the CEGB with James Williamson (in association with Binnie & Partners) in 1969. In 1973, a further North Wales Hydro-electric Power Bill sought permission from parliament to construct the power station. The bill was opposed by the North Wales Hydro-Electric Protection Committee - a standing committee established during the 1940s which represented the YHA, conservationist, mountaineering, and ramblers' organisations. They received the support of a number of MPs who made several attempts to block the Bill. The British Mountaineering Council also expressed their fears about the danger to the amenities of the newly created Snowdonia National Park by the proposed scheme: ‘This in our view is another instance of whittling away the essential purposes of National Parks for reasons of material expediency.’ but the campaign was ultimately unsuccessful. The arguments for the bill were too convincing:
‘You have a lake which is not less than 800 feet above the lake below and you turn on the flexible power that is yours—something which is unusual and astonishing. The flexible power involved is such that the machine can go from zero to 1,320 megawatts in ten seconds. It can build up to 1½ million kilowatts to feed into the grid’.