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War Economy

Faulty Pre-war Power Estimates

Faulty Pre-war Power Estimates

The reduced pace of hydro-electric power development in the pre-war years was no doubt attributable initially to faulty judgment of the 1932 National Expenditure Commission, which counselled strenuous opposition to any move for the commencement of further works.1

However, not all the blame can be placed on the National Expenditure Commission. In its 1935–36 annual report, the Electric Power Boards and Supply Authorities Association, in estimating requirements up to 1943–44, said:

‘The position in the North and South Islands respectively in regard to available generating capacity, installed plant and maximum demand for 1943–44 is set out in attached figures. From these figures it appears that the necessity for developing an entirely new (hydro-electric) scheme is remote.’2

Power supplies seem to have been sufficient at the outbreak of war, but with inadequate provision for expansion. By 1940 there were signs of impending shortages in the North Island, and in the following year rationing was frequently under consideration.

1 See also p. 47.

2 See also NZPD, Vol. 273, p. 99.

page 429

In March 1941 a Wellington daily paper reported:

‘The unlikelihood of electricity being rationed during the coming winter was mentioned by the Minister of Public Works, Mr Armstrong, during his visit to Napier when on his way to the Wairoa, Gisborne, and the Cambridge districts. He said the Minister of Mines, Mr Webb, was of the opinion that all the coal necessary for industrial and domestic purposes could be produced in New Zealand.

‘The rapid extension of secondary industries had created a demand for electric power that had never been anticipated, said Mr Armstrong. Only in years to come, when complete electrification of industry was accomplished, would the wisdom of the Government's decision to continue the Tuai1 scheme be appreciated.

‘Discussing Public Works policy generally, Mr Armstrong said that only works of national importance would be continued during the war. Manpower was the chief factor to be considered.’2

It is true that wartime requirements expanded manufacturing needs, but it is also true that hydro-electric expansion was not pushed forward fast enough in the pre-war years, especially when the possibility of war was apparent.3 When the danger was finally realised, it was too late.

A good picture of the overbalancing of surplus into shortage of power was given after the war by the Hon. John Robertson in a debate in the Legislative Council. He said:4

‘… We have made tremendous advances, but if we look at consumption since 1935 we find there has been an increase of 152 per cent. Why? Well, since 1935 the number of electric ranges has grown from thirty-nine thousand to one hundred and thirty-five thousand; the figures for water heaters are fiftythree thousand and one hundred and sixty thousand; milking machines with electricity as their motive power have increased from seventeen thousand to thirty-two thousand; and so it goes on. The total units generated have reached unprecedented heights, but that does not get rid of the fact that we are still up against a shortage. In the period 1938 to 1939 the demand for electric power jumped very appreciably, but it is fair to all parties to point out that at that time the number of generators that were in service to carry the increased load were quite ample, and, at

1 In 1939 a third generator of 20,000 kilowatt capacity was added to bring the capacity of the station to 52,000 kilowatts. Tuai was to be the control centre for the three stations of the Waikaremoana scheme, Kaitawa, Tuai and Piripaua. The Minister probably referred to the Tuai scheme in this broader sense. (Author's footnote.)

2 Dominion, 31 March 1941.

3 See also p. 46.

4 NZPD, Vol. 273, p. 99, 27 June 1946.

page 430 the same time, more plant was on order for the years ahead, for it takes some four years to construct a generating station. However, with the outbreak of war it became impossible to get that plant into the country, and with the demand for power all the time going onwards and upwards the State Hydro-electric Department was driven to every possible shift in order to increase its generation.’

As could have been expected, it was difficult enough during the war years to provide new plant for normal expansion, let alone to catch up on neglected pre-war expansion and to provide for special war needs at the same time. The first warning of pending power shortages had come in 1936, when the rate of increase in power consumption stepped up. Much of the wartime difficulty arose from tardiness in heeding this warning. A war had been threatening, but generating capacity had not been pushed far enough ahead of power needs to cope with the interruptions in hydroelectric development which war was likely to bring.

Wartime difficulties in power development should not be underestimated. The only criticism is that they were not foreseen. A recent writer1 said of the Cobb power station, ‘… Cobb did not come into operation until mid-1944, mainly owing to the shortage of men and materials during the war.’ Of Kaitawa he wrote, ‘Owing to delays in the delivery of machinery from overseas, due to the war, the Station did not commence operation until 1948’, and of ‘Tekapo, ‘Construction of the tunnel to convey water from the lake to the power station began in 1938 but was discontinued during the war and did not resume until 1946.’

1 N. M. Speer, The Electrical Supply Industry in New Zealand.