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New documentary series on start of NZ's electricity industry

New documentary series examines the unique beginnings of New Zealand’s electricity industry

A new documentary series will celebrate the unsung heroes involved in the early stages of New Zealand’s electricity industry.

Powering New Zealand is a five-part series uncovering the stories of the inventors and pioneers who made significant contributions to New Zealand’s electricity industry. The first episode will premiere at an industry screening at Hamilton’s Meteor Theatre on 21 November.

The documentary’s creators and hosts are energy experts Stephen Batstone and David Reeve, who have more than 40 years’ experience in the electricity industry between them. Both say the documentary is a passion project, inspired by the cast of characters involved in the early stages of the industry, characters who have largely been forgotten.

“There were so many stories to tell in this series, and really we could have told many more,” says Batstone. “There are some great stories from the past ten years or so, but the older ones tend to get lost as time goes on.

“We wanted to bring them to our national consciousness by saying, hang on, these people are actually worth celebrating and we can learn from them.”

The first episode shows how Otago’s booming gold mining industry helped create New Zealand’s first hydroelectric power station in the 1880s, along with some of the “forgotten innovators” who made it happen – George Bullen and Walter Prince.

Bullen installed an electricity generator at the bottom of a cliff near an Otago mining settlement, creating New Zealand’s first hydroelectric power station. The settlement became known as Bullendale, and the gold mining operation was the first in the first in the world to be powered by electricity.

Electrical engineer Prince, sent from the UK to investigate New Zealand’s growing electric lighting industry, not only designed Bullendale but also built Reefton’s hydroelectric power station. Reefton became the first town in the southern hemisphere to be lit with electricity.

Hosting the premiere screening in Hamilton is deliberate, says Batstone. “The Waikato and Bay of Plenty region is a hub for the electricity industry. You have big energy companies such as Contact Energy, Trustpower, Genesis Energy and Mercury Energy based there, and many wind, thermal, geothermal and hydroelectric power stations including iconic Arapuni and Wairakei.

“Not to mention Waikato is home to some great innovative minds, such as the Gallagher family and Lloyd Mandeno, who was a big advocate for hydroelectricity in homes in the 1920s.”

The Gallaghers and Mandeno will feature in upcoming episodes of the series, alongside other important electricity milestones including the invention of the electric water heater and the development of the world-changing electric fence.

With the documentary Batstone hopes New Zealanders will feel inspired and proud of their electricity industry and realise how much New Zealand has contributed to the global understanding of renewable energy.

“We can start celebrating the Lloyd Mandenos of the electricity world alongside the Thomas Edisons.”

Reeve says the documentary is also an effort to preserve history and to inspire people about future possibilities in electricity.

“When we were researching we found that even people in the industry weren’t aware of this fascinating heritage,” he says. “This is probably down to the fact that as an industry, we’re always looking for a new innovation, the next big thing.”

“We want people to see these stories and see that we have achieved massive things on a global scale before – so what’s to stop us from doing that again?”

For more information, head to the Powering New Zealand Facebook page:

Five of New Zealand’s electricity firsts

1. The first gold mining operation in the southern hemisphere to be powered by electricity was Bullendale, in the Central Otago region, in 1886.
2. Lloyd Mandeno, born at Rangiaowhia near Te Awamutu, invented the world’s first electric water heater during the 1920s.
3. Wairakei, near Taupo, became the first geothermal power station to run on ‘wet steam’ in 1960, triggering the development of geothermal power stations around the world to do the same.
4. The high voltage direct current (HVDC) inter-island transmission system (aka the Cook Strait cables) that connects the electricity networks of the North and South islands was completed in 1965, and was the largest and most advanced in the world at the time.
5. In 1912 Canterbury’s Lake Coleridge hydroelectric station became the first of its type in the world, providing a blueprint for nearly every hydroelectric station that followed.


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