As we work to transition to a low carbon future, policy makers and engineers are tackling the challenge of imagining our future energy generation systems. But it’s not a new challenge – it was also at the fore more than a century ago.

More than 100 years ago, politicians and engineers were facing an almost blank canvas as they imagined how a system of electricity generation and transmission could be developed in New Zealand.

Some of the questions they had are ones we are asking today. What infrastructure is needed? How much will it cost? What will be the return on investment – not just in economic terms, but as a driver of social, environmental, and technological change?

New Zealand in a new light

By the 1880s, it was becoming clear that electricity was going to be an important part of people’s lives and the economy.

Use of electricity for lighting was gaining momentum and electric tram services began operation in Auckland (1902), Dunedin (1903), Wellington (1904) and Christchurch (1905). Electricity also promised opportunities for industry and wide application in the home.

Most cities used steam generating plants to run their trams and streetlights, but the most promising technology gaining increasing attention was hydro.

Hydro a “national asset”

Looking overseas for inspiration and expertise, the government commissioned LM Hancock, an electrical engineer and General Superintendent of the Transmission Department of the California Gas and Electric Company in the United States, to make a survey of New Zealand’s hydroelectric potential.

Mr Hancock toured the country over nine weeks in late 1903, accompanied by Public Works Department Superintendent, Peter Seton Hay. The pair visited waterfalls, rivers, and lakes from Whangārei, in the north, to Fiordland in the south.

In his report, Mr Hancock made much of New Zealand’s potential and emphasised the profitability of hydro. He wrote of New Zealand’s water-powers as “white diamonds” to rival “black diamonds” – coal.

Mr Hay was a little more reserved in his conclusions and looked closely at the logistics of implementation, supply and demand. He also considered how existing technology – in particular the railways – could be transitioned to electricity.

While there would be challenges, his recommendation to the government was clear – coal was a finite resource and could not meet New Zealand’s increasing demand for power. Hydro, on the other hand, would “remain as a national asset as long as the climatic conditions and the mountains endure”.

Private versus public money

Despite such recommendation, the government was for some years reluctant to borrow the funds needed to construct any of the schemes Mr Hancock and Mr Hay advocated. Instead, it was private business that took the first leap into the market.

In 1902, the Waipori Electric Power Company began to construct a scheme on the Waipori River with the intention of supplying electricity to residents and businesses in the growing city of Dunedin.

Feeling strongly that such an important utility should not be left in the self-interested hands of business, the Dunedin City Council opposed the company’s bid to supply the city and eventually bought and developed the scheme itself. Electricity from Waipori powered Dunedin from 1907.

The Waipori scheme has been expanded several times since and continues to supply power to Dunedin today.

In 1910, the Government passed the Aid to Water-Powers Works Act, authorising it to borrow to finance the development of hydro power schemes and to establish the Hydro-Electric Branch of the Public Works Department.

The first major hydro scheme developed by the Government was at Lake Coleridge, to supply the city of Christchurch. Work started in 1911 and the scheme began operation in 1914.


Today hydro generates around 60 percent of our total electricity supply. Energy generated from renewable sources makes up approximately 30 percent of our total energy consumption.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the barriers to developing hydro technology were the large upfront costs and the yet-to-be-established demand for electricity, including the question of how to transition existing technology. The values that drove development were a desire for the lifestyle changes and the opportunities for industry that electricity would bring.

As we look ahead to the next 100 years we must focus on the social, cultural, and environmental outcomes we want to achieve and invest in solutions that will serve us well for generations to come.