This feature was shot in 2008. A full edit of 36 images available on request. The following text was written by photographer Toby Smith, and is available with the images.
Wispy tendrils of vapor drift off into the ether as Drax power station glows in the darkness. Cooling towers seemingly grow out of the lakeside woodland as Britain’s largest power station, thirsty for coal, provides for the energy needs of the country. The plant can process up to 36,000 tons of coal a day and over the course of year eats its way through between 7-11 million tons it.
In the late 18th century steam power, provided by coal, was the white heat that drove the revolution of industry in the UK. As agriculture and manufacturing became increasingly mechanized, food and goods became cheaper, GDP soared and Britain flourished. Coal proved the bedrock of the burgeoning British Empire and our dependence on plentiful energy began.
In the past 200 years energy usage has increased by nearly 20 times and through economic change in the latter half of the last century coal was slowly being replaced by natural gas and oil of the North Sea. Collieries closed as refineries opened but now with domestic supplies dwindling and oil reaching $147 per barrel earlier in 2008, nearly five times the price of a few years ago, Britain faces a stark and immediate reality: It must adapt faster to cleaner, cheaper and more renewable sources or face ever-more spiraling energy costs, rolling blackouts and a large reduction in the quality of life for the consumer.
Here in Britain our hunger for domestic electricity is still primarily fed by fossil fuels, despite the renewable targets we have set ourselves. 5.8% comes from nuclear energy and a mere 1.8% from renewable sources. This leaves 92.4% of our energy needs dependent on a finite, dirty and increasingly expensive resource and one which we are losing control of the supply. As more and more focus turns towards how we proceed with our future energy generation policy, Britain’s fleet of existing Power Stations are close to capacity. Over the next 5 years if any of the largest stations were to unexpectedly go off-line, millions could face black-outs. 80% of Britain’s nuclear energy supply is scheduled to close by 2015 as is 8 of its aged coal-fired power stations by opting out of attempting to reach new European emission laws. New nuclear stations require 10 years of planning and construction leaving a serious power “generation gap” predicted by 2015.
The North Sea output is below what was forecasted in year’s past and Britain may also be at risk to Russia’s control over EU energy and in particular Natural Gas. The current British solution looks to smaller scale modern, efficient Combined Cycle Gas Turbine and modernization of coal power stations. These modifications include retrofitting existing stations with desulfurization and strict CO2 reduction. Another more controversial alternative is the building of new second generation coal-power stations that claim 50% more efficiency.
Photographer Toby Smith has chosen to illustrate our new fragile relationship with energy production by photographing all 32 operational plants within the English landscape. Working at night highlights both the alien architecture of the sites but also the varying hues and colors of the cities they supply.
Power Stations are both numerous and massive in their structure yet lie on the edge of our consciousness and landscapes. Through the infrastructure of the National Grid these 32 structures quite literally warm, illuminate, charge and power our homes and industry. We are quick to use them as negative icons of pollution but are often ignorant of our reliance on the electricity they produce for our needs.
All of the images in this series are captured between sunset and sunrise with large format color film exposures between 2 minutes and 5 hours. This is a comment both on the site’s ceaseless operation but also the desire to illustrate their solidarity and our relationship with a visible form of the energy they produce.