Over 125 years of electricity supply
On 4 August 1888, Reefton became the first town in New Zealand, and the southern hemisphere, to have its own public electricity supply. Two years before, in 1886, that engineer and entrepreneur Walter Prince had 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.
The country’s first modern hydroelectricity power station was opened in 1914 at Lake Coleridge in the Southern Alps.
The end of World War I saw the beginning of explosive 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.
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. By 1923 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 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. The workers – from engineers to labourers – often lived on the job, in primitive conditions, and in all weathers.
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.
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.
Around ¾ of New Zealand's electricity is still generated from renewable resources, hydro being the most significant.