A particular day stands out in Peter Meredith’s memories of when his dad worked at the Normanby Hydropower Station on the Waingongoro River.
“They had three water turbines as well as two diesel generators,” Peter said.
“The turbines were hooked to generators by belt connectors and one day the belt connector broke on turbine number one. It ripped up the timber floor and chucked all the wood around inside.
“My dad was on shift that day and once the belt broke the revs would have got away on it. The boss, Jack Yardley, said to my dad ‘well did you stop it?’. And I remember Dad saying, ‘Well Jack, no. I thought I should get the hell out of there until the wood stopped flying around!’
Peter, now aged 86 and living in Hāwera, was born in and grew up in a house that was so close to the Waingongoro that lamprey eels regularly came up out of the river and helped themselves to the hens in the chook house.
Peter lived there until he married and moved out of home.
His father, Valentine Meredith, did eight-hour shifts at the station.
“They had a man there all the time to keep an eye on the station,” Peter said.
“At 6 o’clock at night when the load came up quite high, they’d start up the diesels.”
Peter explained there were a couple of reasons for cranking up the diesels to cope with demand: First, so as not to “upset [bakery] Yarrows at Manaia” if the power went out , and second, that if “the power meter in the office went too high up the scale the power board were penalised and had to pay for the power, but if they started the diesels they could knock it back and they weren’t penalised”.
Peter and his brothers Fred and Phil would often take their tea and some for their dad down to the station and eat with their father. Later they’d train the family dog to take Valentine’s dinner to him in a basket.
“The station probably could have been more automated, but I guess they used the technology that was available to them at the time.”
In fact, Taranaki was at the forefront of hydro electric power. Of the first 14 publicly available electricity supplies in New Zealand, seven were in Taranaki. Most of those were hydroelectric schemes, based on the seasonally consistent water supply provided by Mt Taranaki’s many streams.
Several of the region’s dairy factories provided their own power supply, either with water wheels, small turbines or Pelton wheels. It was the demand for electric lighting by both the increasing urban populations and local farmers – who were busy installing the new milking machines and separators in their cowsheds – who provided a sound economic reason for the public power schemes at the beginning of the 1900s.
A private company installed the first of Taranaki’s electricity generators in 1898 on the Pātea River at Stratford. Other schemes followed with the dam and generating station on the Waingongoro River commissioned in 1903. It was then known as the Hāwera hydro scheme.
The station is situated at a part of the Waingongoro River where it loops back on itself. The 3.1km loop. The dam was built in the middle of the loop and put a tunnel through the piece of land in between so there’s just 50m that separates the dam and the power station.
The original powerhouse was replaced by a more substantial concrete structure in the 1930s when the generating capacity was increased. The original dam was also rebuilt and heightened in the 1930s to increase the capacity of the reservoir.
A fish ladder was also installed when they realised the scheme stopped fish swimming upstream.
“That was a bit of a fiasco because a lot of people got to know when the fish ladder was running. There were some nice big brown trout. Locals used to pick them out. It was an easy day out fishing.”
The station provided power to Hāwera, Eltham, Manaia, and surrounding towns in South Taranaki until 1967 when a flood seriously damaged the station. Some of the early generating equipment is now held in the Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland.
Peter remembers the flood: “She was a bad affair, the water flowed over the concrete by the gates, and it took the pipe bridge out which took water to Hāwera.”
After the station closed down Peter said “the number three generator got pinched and the same night our house got burnt down. Dad had moved into town by then and retired… there was a bit of a bad element around”.
“When they decided to do away with the place, they heaved all of the day running books into the river. I managed to rescue some of those, and I’ve still got them.”
In 2008 an Australian hydropower developer Jim Scott obtained resource consent to rebuild the power station. Jim began to rebuild the station until he died in 2010. A company then purchased the power station in 2014 and in 2015 it produced the first electricity at the site since 1967.
The station was then able to produce half a megawatt with a total capacity of 1.5 megawatts.
In 2017 Greenfern Industries was incorporated and the founders set about with plans to create a medicinal cannabis and hemp operation. Greenfern initially had an agreement to purchase low-cost power from the station to power its growing and research facility located next to the station. Their crowdfunding campaign in 2020 enabled the company to buy the power station outright in December last year.
When Greenfern took ownership of the power station it was not compliant. So, they invested in upgrading and modifying power station infrastructure and the technology that monitors the water intake and output. They worked closely with the compliance and monitoring team at Taranaki Regional Council who then gave Greenfern the go-ahead to generate power once again in April this year.
Greenfern won’t need to use all the power the station generates so will sell the excess back to the national grid.
And managing director Dan Casey said they’re now considering whether to further upgrade the power station’s generation capacity which would mean higher power output through a larger and more efficient turbine.
So while parts of the power station that Peter remembers remain, it’s certainly a more efficient version today.
Our thanks goes to Peter Meredith for sharing his memories. And also to Ron Lambert, the author of The Alchemy of the Engineer: Taranaki Hydro-electricity – an article on Kete New Plymouth, for some of the information in this article.