People’s Republic of Energy walking tour of Manchester’s energy history and future, with Carbon Co-op and Jam and Justice

Written by Hannah Knox, 29th October 2019

It is a commonly noted feature of infrastructures that they exist out of sight, invisible to their users, at least until they break down.  This is certainly the case for the electrical networks that support urban life in cities like Manchester where we have been involved in a project to try to rethink energetic power as a key part of the city. Manchester is a place where the sources of the power that energise the city lie far from the places where its residents live. The wires that transport the power to people’s homes are hidden under pavements and roads, revealed only by cryptic acronyms on ageing manhole covers that hint at the infrastructure that lies below. Meanwhile the offices of the companies responsible for electricity are purposefully obscured from public view hidden down back streets, on industrial estates or on the upper floors of non-descript office blocks. And yet without electricity the city as we know it would not exist. Electricity is a power that organises the city, but whose means of doing so is almost impossible to detect. 

We are living in a moment when the question of who owns, controls, produces and benefits from electricity arguably holds the key to sustainable urban futures. If cities are going to refashion themselves as socially and ecologically sustainable places to live, they will need to have a stake in the infrastructures from which they have emerged and through which they will continue to be shaped, and this includes the electricity systems upon which cities rely. 

In 2018, in an attempt to bring electricity infrastructure back into view, we curated a performance walk to bring to the surface and allow people to experience a story of electricity in Manchester. This was part of a wider research project funded by Jam and Justice (with Mistra Urban Futures) that aimed to create new ways of imagining electricity infrastructure as a key part of the future governance of the city. In October 2019, as part of the Realising Just Cities Conference funded by Mistra Urban Futures we re-ran our walk for a group of delegates from the conference. 

The walk is based on archival research into the technical, social and organisational histories of electricity in Manchester and wends a chrononigical path through Manchester’s urban landscape, from the neo-gothic library of the John Rylands library built with the proceeds of coal extraction, to the sheer glass edifice of the Beetham Tower that towers over the city’s Victorian heritage providing a view of the glittering lights on the 21st century city. Through the walk our intention is to conjure for those who join us, a visceral sense of how electricity came to penetrate the city, how it was tamed and controlled, how it came to be hidden away, and how now it is making a return in ways that may be able to create new opportunities for people to become involved in decisions about how the city should be powered. 

We start our walk before the age of electricity, a time of coal powered generators that lit opulent buildings like the John Rylands Library, and town-gas (a bi-product of coke) that first provided the city with a network of street lights. Through an attention to the early days of energetic power we discover that this became a source of revenue for the Manchester Corporation – the precursor to the city council – and a means of consolidating local political power. Thus it was that in 1893, it was the Manchester Corporation who opened the city’s first coal-fired electrical power station in Dickinson Street just across from the recently constructed new town hall and town hall square. At this time electricity was anything but invisible. The coal was transported from nearby mines in the city itself along canals. The chimneys of the power station would belch out thick black smoke that in time would coat the red bricks of Manchester in a thick patina of grimy soot. The rubberised insulation covering the electrical wires that lay just beneath the street were prone to crack and its was not uncommon for horses to hop and skip as their hooves took a kick of electrical charge through the city’s streets.

From these early days we then take a detour through the period of nationalisation and a gradual distancing of electricity generation from the city. Inviting our walkers to join us in a board meeting, we provide them with a top-down overview of a nationalised system whereby electricity production and distribution became standardised and centralised with new hydropower, nuclear and rural coal mines. However at this time we also find that customers still experience electricity as very much a personal, face-to-face, local service. We collectively recall the days of the electricity board shops, where the future is bright, ‘better things are electric’ and there is just one place to go to buy electrical appliances, to get repairs done and to pay ​your bills. We even find out that every neighbourhood had an electricity consultative council through which they could transmit their needs and concerns about electricity up the bureaucratic hierarchy to those at the top. 

All this is told in the knowledge of what comes next, the privatisation of electricity that started in the UK in 1990. Here things get very complex and we are confronted practically and performatively with the challenge of how to understand the relationship between electricity and the city when it is turned into a market good. We take our walkers to an opulent cocktail bar on the 23rd floor of the city’s tallest building, from which they can scan the fruits of neo-liberal market policies of urban development in the form of a self-confident, glass and stone fronted, branded city centre, scattered with the twinkle of lights powered by a similarly marketised electricity system. Gone is the organisation and institutional connection with the city, save for the institutional memory of the employees of the former nationalised industries who have lived a transition from working for a regional company to working for a global financial corporation.  

And yet our story is not finished. For there is an invisible presence in those twinkling lights that is returning to the city now in the form of a new responsibility – not for electricity provision, but for recognition of the role that the city’s energetic history has played in an unfolding global climate crisis. In the background to our tale of the dislocation of electrical energy is a parallel tale of rising carbon emissions from this electrical history. If in the 1920s the exortation to a new energy public was to ‘use electricity’ in order to sustain an expanding electrical system, the exhortation now is to save energy – both for the planet and for the viability of the energy grid. 

Through the walk our aim is to bring electricity back into view. But this is also starting to happen of its own accord. Solar panels have begun to appear even in this rainy city, the hills around Manchester are flanked with wind turbines, heat pumps are being trialled, heat networks are being discussed and new kinds of market solutions for energy production, exchange and saving are being trialled. And so perhaps one day there will be no need for an energy walk to remind us of the entanglement between electricity and the shape of the cities in which we live. But until then there is still much work to be done, to bring into view the past, present and future of electricity as the energetic force that sustains cities in their current form and holds the key to their transformation in the future.