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War Economy

Electricity on the Upsurge

Electricity on the Upsurge

Electricity generation in New Zealand was by no means new in the pre-war decade. As far back as 1885 a hydro-electric power plant had been installed in Otago.1 Electric power development was essentially a government undertaking. In 1903, the Water Power Act had reserved to the Crown the sole right to use water for generating electricity.

Electricity was rapidly moving into new uses in the pre-war years and, in the five years up to 1939, electric power generation increased by 65 per cent. This rapid expansion in supply was not to satisfy demand for long. Demand increases of 9 per cent or more a year were usual and any hesitation for a few years in the expansion of generating plant would see demand ahead of supply.

Electric power shortages developed in the North Island in the war years, a misfortune which hampered the war effort and should have been avoided. Efficient production requires, above all, adequate power in convenient form.

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Wartime shortages of electric power cannot be explained entirely in terms of an unexpected increase in demand, although domestic and manufacturing uses were expanding rapidly, and difficulties in getting adequate coal supplies tended to switch demand to other sources of heat and power. The real cause of the difficulty was that hydro-electric development had been neglected before the war. From 1936 to 1938 expenditure on hydro-electric development was far less than it had been at any time during the depression. Indeed, it was not until the war was well under way that depression expenditure was exceeded.

From 1930 to 1935, under the influence of the depression, power consumption in New Zealand had increased by only about 5 ½ per cent a year. It was, no doubt, this comparatively slow rate of growth in consumption which influenced the very conservative estimates which were then made about future power requirements, and led to the curtailment of development.

From 1935 to 1941, however, the increase in consumption averaged over 12 per cent a year. With curtailed expenditure on hydro-electric development, demand soon overtook generating capacity.

1 By the Phoenix Quartz Mining Company on the Shotover River. The first government hydro-electric station was at Lake Coleridge in 1915.