Monday, 27 April 2009

What goes into a hot shower

With on-demand electricity, heat and hot water it’s not surprising we don’t give energy a second thought. My early morning shower is over before I’m properly awake – that’s how little I think about it. But someone somewhere has to generate the power to heat my water, and as I live close to the Oxfordshire border I guess that would be Didcot power station.

A coal fired power station isn’t everyone’s idea of a good evening out. Luckily everyone wasn’t invited, so it was just me and the rest of the Southern Branch of the Energy Institute. They were a keen and knowledgeable bunch and indulgently tolerant of a woman more used to an office than an industrial site, and whose hard hat insisted on being worn at a jaunty angle.

I’ve passed the Didcot’s huge cooling towers often and thought them something of a blot, but on a sunny spring evening, and close up, they really are spectacular – majestic even. Which is more than you can say for the rest of the site. However, the sheer scale of the place is awe-inspiring. The turbine hall is enormous – it would swallow up the Tate Modern’s old turbine hall many times over and still have room for dessert. Unlike the Tate Modern, however, this is very much a working space. Although Didcot A was commissioned in 1972 – it still has one of the largest capacities of all power plants in the UK – almost 2000MW. (The site at Didcot has two power stations – Didcot A which is dual coal and gas fired and Didcot B which is much newer and is gas fired).

As the energy and environmental debates rumble on coal fired power stations don’t get a good press. But these old ladies of power generation do as much as they can to be environmentally friendly, for example including biomass as part of the mix. It’s not as much as anyone would like but power stations like Didcot A were designed in a different age for different priorities. Until we figure out some better ways of heating our hot water, it is keeping some 2 million people showered and heated.


  1. I have to agree and maybe whilst not a thing of beauty it is an amazing space. To think how few people it takes to manage, the way it operates continuously....Makes one proud to be an engineer

    When at Newcastle railway station recently noted a smal plaque reminding us that in 1859 Queen Victoria opened the station - today it is still impressive, magnificent and it works!

    One assumes that Didcot will evolve in time with technology and new systems are developed.Maybe it will have a life after power?

    It is good to get out of the office as well!

  2. Small typo and addition

    Newcastle station was 1850, is grade 1 listed and also deisgned with Robert Stephenson, the son of George of locomotive fame.

  3. In praise of engineers - and quite right too! Can't say I'm likely to be up in Newcastle any time soon, but next time I am I will take a look!!

    As for what will become of Didcot A - we shall have to wait and see.