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Significant milestones in NZs 125 yrs of electricity supply

Significant milestones in New Zealand's 125 years of electricity supply

On 04 August 1888 Reefton became the first town in New Zealand, and the southern hemisphere, to have its own public electricity supply.

In 1886 engineer and entrepreneur Walter Prince visited Reefton and enthused residents with his demonstrations of electric power. A group of them put money into a private company to build a 20kW hydroelectric power station using water from the Inangahua River.

Power lines were installed through the town, with householders and business owners paying £1 (about $100 in today’s money) to have the power connected, then a flat £3 a year for every light they had in their building. By Christmas 1888, there were some 500 bulbs blazing.

From small beginnings electricity grew to play a central role in New Zealand's economic and social development. Today electricity is vital to a modern New Zealand society for business, transport, communication, home and leisure life.

The country’s first modern hydroelectricity power station was opened in 1914 at Lake Coleridge in the Southern Alps. Then the end of World War I saw the beginning of unprecedented growth in the use of electricity at home and in the workplace.

The government took a central role in building power stations. With the country's topography and abundant rainfall it was decided that hydroelectric generation was the best choice to develop our electricity supply. Around ¾ of New Zealand's electricity is still generated from renewable resources, hydro being the most significant.

Building the networks
In 1919, Southland Electric Power Board became the first power supply authority. New Zealand’s government was committed to providing ‘an abundant supply of cheap electric power throughout the land’. That meant raising loans to build hydroelectric power stations and link the power generated in a network that would reach all the country’s major communities.

With the supply of electricity to the country, radio stations were possible. New Zealand’s first radio broadcast came from Dunedin on 17 November 1921. Two years later the country had 11 licensed radio stations broadcasting to nearly 3,000 receivers.

In 1922, Gordon Coates, Minister of Public Works, said in Parliament; “The Government is most anxious that the people should get their electricity at as cheap a rate as possible.” Electricity certainly proved popular and consumption increased over 600 per cent from 1920 to 1930.

Before World War 2 dams, power stations and power lines were installed by gangs of men using mostly hand tools and muscle power. Much of the work was in back country areas and the workers – from engineers to labourers – often lived on the job, in primitive conditions and in all weathers.

A low cost solution for distributing electricity to sparsely populated rural areas was invented in New Zealand by Lloyd Mandeno in 1925. His system, using a single power line, became known as SWER (Single Wire Earth Return). The usual supply method used current cycling through two separate power lines. Mandeno did away with the cost of a second line and used the earth wiring within a single line for the current’s return.

Mandeno's genius gained international recognition and SWER systems now deliver electricity to low-volume users in many parts of the world.

With greater access to electricity in rural areas, farmers were always on the lookout for inventive ways to apply the technology. In the 1930s, Waikato farmer Bill Gallagher developed a battery energiser to electrify fences. The device found a ready market among farmers for managing their stock’s access to pasture. From this, Gallagher developed a mains-powered unit in the 1960s that became an international success.

By 1934, the North Island had a joined-up ‘grid’ linking the three new hydroelectric power stations – Mangahao (Manawatu), Tuai (Lake Waikaremoana) and Arapuni (Waikato River). By 1938, power from the Waitaki River hydro scheme joined a network connecting two-thirds of the South Island – from the West Coast to Canterbury through to Otago and Southland.

Pervasive power
In 1960 the government decided to construct a line sending South Island power to the North Island. It would run from the 540MW Benmore hydro station (New Zealand’s biggest before Manapouri), then being built, to a substation in the Hutt Valley. The cable was complete in 1965 and at over 600 kilometres, including 40 under water, it was the longest HVDC link in the world at the time.

The introduction of black-and-white television in 1961 was accompanied by a surge of electricity consumption – an average of 10 per cent each year over the next five years.By the 1970s, a fully operational national grid supplied around 99 per cent of New Zealand’s population with electricity. People now depended on that supply round the clock.

In 1987 the Labour government decided it was not the government’s role to manage electricity supply. It turned the Electricity Department into the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand (ECNZ), a state-owned enterprise with the business of generating power and selling it to retail organisations. ECNZ created a subsidiary to plan, build and maintain the transmission network; Transpower. In 1994 Transpower became a separate state-owned enterprise.

In 1997 National government minister Max Bradford broke up ECNZ into several businesses competing with each other in the generation and supply of electricity. This formed the basis of today's electricity market.

The future
New Zealand's electricity supply industry continues to develop through the convergence of power and telecommunications technologies. Smart grids are evolving and they will help manage rapidly changing demands, while maximising reliability and efficiency and improving resilience. Customer demand response will also play a part in managing the country's future peak energy demands.

As one of the leading countries worldwide in the use of renewable energy, there is further scope for New Zealand to generate a higher proportion of electricity from renewable resources (e.g. wind, solar, hydro, geothermal) and export our expertise.
The electricity industry is an exciting technology career and we are looking to develop the next generation of engineers – people with the technology skills and engineering knowledge to deliver the future electricity network New Zealand needs.

Reefton Event to recognise the 125 year anniversary
On the weekend of the 125th anniversary the Reefton Powerhouse Charitable Trust is setting up in the local iSite to explain to the public what their goals are; to build a replica of the original power supply along with a small modern plant to show the evolution from 1888 to today.
The trust is holding a special lunch celebration on Saturday 3 August and we can expect some special guests to attend. This event will mark the 125th anniversary and also be the launch of the Friends of the Powerhouse group.

The theme for this year's EEA Conference in Auckland, was '125 Years, Past and Future'. The event included recognition of the anniversary, the achievements of the last 125 years and looked forward to further developments in the future of New Zealand's electricity system. Part of that celebration included creating a new exhibition quality display to highlight milestones over the last 125 years and look to the future of New Zealand's electricity supply.


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