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The history of Motueka's electricity supplies

Posted October 8th, 2012 (expanded and updated November 2nd)
By Gary Westbury

In 1929 the Waimea Electric Power Board was formed and almost immediately absorbed the Brightwater and Motueka plants, adding a hydroelectric scheme in the Brooklyn Valley in 1934. Over in isolated Golden Bay, the Golden Bay Electric Power Board was formed in 1925, which commissioned the Pupu hydroelectric scheme in 1929.

Although there was widespread belief the region needed a major hydro scheme, this was made impossible by economic depression and then the outbreak of World War 1. The Nelson region had to soldier on with small schemes and supplementary supplies until the Cobb scheme, started in 1935 by the Australian Hume Company, was commissioned in 1944 after being completed by the government of the day.

Brooklyn Valley:  This small Brooklyn power station back then, left, as now.

In the first photo, the pipeline coming down from the dam high up the hill can be faintly seen. Outside the power station was the transformer, switchgear and the start of the power transmission lines down the valley.

The second photo shows the restored power station as today.

The generator (0.2Mw) was powered by a water pipeline from a dam (see later photo) further up the valley. This fall (head) of water was believed to be the second highest in the southern hemisphere and provided a high pressure water supply to the single turbine. A pipeline vertical surge chamber was sited on the hill above the power station.

The original generator (on right) was belt driven from a pelton wheel water turbine with a large 2 metre diameter flywheel and speed governor.

The pipeline entry and the new refurbished power generation. Control and monitoring is now done remotely via communications by Mr Lloyd Wensley.

The original dam: (before it was flood damaged then partly blown up - why?)

The restored dam and pipeline connection.

Power demand:
In early times the power loading from customers was high and a change of generator sound could be heard on site as heavy demand (e.g. Baigent's sawmill cutting up large logs) came on and off. The power generated was fed into the national grid and produced some revenue for the Waimea Electric Power Board.

The power station required weekly maintenance e.g. oiling of bearings etc. This work was done by the local power board inspector/manager who also had to maintain the power lines down the valley from the station. Many a possum was shot off the poles before they made contact with overhead lines.

The system was later decommissioned and partly destroyed but has now been reinstated recently through the efforts of the now owner Mr Lloyd Wensley.

Motueka WEPB operations:
The early site in Motueka for the Waimea Electric Power Board was in High Street just (about opposite R Cook's motorcycles premises) north of King Edward Street and shared with the Motueka Borough council yard, equipment, and some sheds (see 1946 photo).

An office for customer accounts was also located in High Street near Manoy's Wine shop just north of Greenwood Street. This was staffed by a Miss Cook and her assistant.

Staff: Joe Limmer, Keith Masters, John Brougham, Pat Westbury (Mngr), Irvine Reeves and Vic Blackmore

A new office, showroom and depot was built and opened in the centre of Motueka (see next photo, below) about opposite where 'The Warehouse' is now. It was a time when the area was rapidly expanding and the Motueka depot was very busy. The depot had provision for:

  • Concrete power pole manufacturing.
  • Vehicle fleet servicing and garaging.
  • Warehouse of cables, insulators, ladders, etc.
  • Radio contact with all the WEPB fleet.
  • A showroom of the latest electrical appliances.
  • An office for Customer services and accounts.

The WEPB area was expanding to and including Sandy Bay, Maurahau, Takaka Hill, Ngatimoti, Dovedale, Tasman, and many other country areas. Their vehicle fleet included a pole hole digger, a cable reel truck, a power pole carrier, and other unusual vehicles. A crane was often also used for lifting the heavy transformers.

The NEW WEPB Office and Depot

This new building serviced the community and purpose well up to the time when expansion slowed and the current Tasman Power Board was formed and domiciled in Richmond. This site was later cleared and is now a New World supermarket carpark.

Inspector/Manager Pat Westbury

Motueka at that time had a manual telephone system and 'party lines' were a common feature. Both information (and gossip) flowed fairly quickly around the area.

This sometimes was an advantage during storms and emergencies to those who often worked long hours over a wide area to maintain a good steady electrical power supply 24/7.

Their fleet vehicle communication originally was by large old ex-army ZC1 type radios which required tall aerials on both the WEPB building and each vehicle. An ingenious mechanism was created locally to elevate the vehicle aerial while still seated in the vehicle which was great in stormy weather.

Assisting at the A & P show was an annual event.

A Chuckle:
The Motueka branch inspector/manager of the Waimea Power Board (Pat Westbury) was the first to install automatically switching of street lighting by the use of a photo-electric cell to monitor the amount of normal daylight available. This saved costs and improved community safety.

Not to be outdone, the WEPB head office staff did the same but they installed their photo-electric cell on the same pole as a street light. When darkness fell the street lights came on but the cell turned them off again, then being dark - straight back on again. Results - Headline in the Nelson paper - "Twinkle, twinkle, little stars".


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