Public Power:  Government Power Supply in the Illawarra.

The generation of electricity in the Illawarra by state authorities commenced in 1915, some twelve years after the first colliery generation at Mt Kembla, and six years after the first significant scale industrial generation at Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Pty.  

PWD Power Station Under Construction, Port Kembla ca 1913

From the collections of the Wollongong City Library
and the Illawarra Historical Society P03892


The Public Works Department (PWD), engaged in developing a new coal loading facility (of most modern design), and in quarrying stone for breakwater construction, built a small coal-fired steam power station to service the power requirements for those functions – and also to later service the construction of the Cordeaux and Avon dams for Sydney’s water supply.  This first facility, while modest in scale (comprising two 300kW generators) was to provide to many consumers their first opportunity to harness the capability of the new service of electricity, and was an important element in the development of industry in the Illawarra, the electrification of Illawarra towns, and the development of the eventual State grid system.

PWD Coal Loader, Port Kembla 1920

From the collections of the Wollongong City Library
and the Illawarra Historical Society P08891


In 1919, an agreement was signed to supply power to Wollongong, which had been supplied since 1912 by a privately owned steam power plant in the central town area.  Such supply was not without contention – a private company (Port Kembla Amusement Company) had developed a business purchasing power from Electrolytic Refining and Smelting, and on-selling to private consumers.  The company contested (unsuccessfully) the right of the publicly-owned station to supply to others. Indeed by 1925 the Port Kembla station was supplying a larger customer area than any other power station in the state.


The initial supply was subsequently extended such that by 1929 the Port Kembla steam power station had a capacity of 7.5 MW, from three 1.5 MW and one 3 MW turbogenerators.  As early as 1920 the plant had been supplying power as far south as Nowra.  It commenced bulk power supply to Wollongong in 1921, supply being subsequently extended to towns in the Southern Highlands, and coastal towns south of Wollongong.  In 1929, the state government enacted the Public Works (Port Kembla Electricity) Act which empowered the responsible Minister to extend the station’s capacity to 25 MW: However by 1937 that had not been done, and at that time planned extensions were of only 15 MW.

NSW Electricity Supply Systems 1937

From Report on Electrical Development in NSW, NSW Government, 1937


The report which recommended those extensions was a comprehensive study of the NSW power system and its future needs (The Report on Electrical Development in New South Wales).  This was a report which was to substantially influence power development in the state.  At that time the station capacity was 7,500 kW, with an additional 10,000 kW capacity on order.  The report identified the need for a further 15,000kW before 1942, an amount premised also on the provision of an interconnector between the Burrinjuck hydroelectric dam and Port Kembla, and the availability of power from the recommended Snowy Mountains hydroelectric power system.  Interestingly the report also foreshadowed what was to become the vehicle for major system development in later years, a central authority controlling and coordinating all significant generation in NSW.

The report’s recommendations were not met, likely through a shortage of finance, and by 1942 station capacity was 20 MW rather than the 32.5 MW it had recommended.  The Burrinjuck dam connector though was completed that year – a 146 mile (236 km), 132 kilovolt line which was the first in the world of that scale. By 1949, station capacity had risen only to 28 MW, and other problems were emerging with the power system overall.  Capacity shortages in the system were starting to be felt broadly, and in the South Eastern System (formed around Port Kembla and Burrinjuck) a shortage of winter rain meant that Burrinjuck had little to contribute, The system was dependent on Port Kembla capacity, and that was claimed to be affected by the provision of a lower-grade, open cut coal from the western area to the power station, rather than the local coal supply.  Blackouts were not uncommon, and the local council and others protested strongly to the Coal Board responsible for coal supply allocation.

Burrinjuck Dam Under Construction, 1911

From State Library of NSW


The power supply situation however was only to worsen over the ensuing several years, with the state divided into zones, and scheduled blackouts in different zones the norm.  Planning had already commenced on a new Illawarra station (at Tallawarra, on Lake Illawarra) but its first unit did not enter production for another four years. To add to difficulties, a recently-installed 15 MW generator set failed in 1951, with irreparable damage.  The supply crisis was such that even redundant shipping was pressed into service, and two ex-naval tugs were despatched to Port Kembla harbour in 1952, where they sat at berth generating 4 MW into the system. They had previously done that also at Balmain in Sydney.


BlackoutSydney Morning Herald, 13 Feb 1947

As part of the state’s emergency response to shortages, a number of American 5 MW packaged units (‘pack sets’) were procured with assistance from the US government in obtaining priority in delivery.  The pack sets, as the name implied, were designed as integral units, incorporating boilers, turbines, generators and related ancillary plant. This allowed much of the normal assembly to be done in a factory, thus allowing rapid installation at site.  They were of an innovative design, and interestingly, as noted below, the approach was to be replicated with later machinery in the 1980s, and for the same purpose.

Four of these were destined for Port Kembla, with the first commencing operation in 1952.  The others also entered service also in 1952, to take the Port Kembla station capacity to 52 MW –which was to rise to 68 MW in 1956 with the commissioning of the 16 MW unit which replaced the earlier damaged 15 MW generator.  (This was the machine which was to later move to the BHP plant to augment generation capacity there.)

Port Kembla Power House ca 1956

From the collections of the Wollongong City Library
and the Illawarra Historical Society P16492

The end of major power generation at the Port Kembla Powerhouse though was to follow not long after.  In 1959, the first dismissals of powerhouse staff started, in preparation for the `scheduled shutdown of operations in March 1961.  The station was re-started for a brief period of operation in 1965, to assist in overcoming power shortages of the time. The boiler house itself was demolished, as the last remnant of operations, in 1998, having provided some 45 years of power generation, largely spanning the period over which the large integrated systems and power stations of the present were developed.  Its growth from two hard-worked 300 kW units to 68,000 kW on shutdown was a clear illustration of the manner in which electricity supply and use had developed over the period.

Cessation of operations though did not mean the end of the site’s association with NSW generation.  In an odd echo of the ‘pack sets’ of the past, the site in 1982 saw the installation of two 25 MW packaged gas turbines, two of a number bought as an emergency measure by the NSW Electricity Commission to counter power shortages arising through plant failures, and installed at various locations around the state.  The turbine packages were conceptually similar to the original pack sets – systems which could be largely assembled as an integrated package in a factory, to minimise site installation demands. The gas turbines were also able to start far more quickly than steam plant, to meet system supply issues.

Tallawarra Power Station.

The station on the western side of Lake Illawarra was part of the major post-war programme to address power shortages which were limiting industry and impacting households.  The shortages were attributable to a number of factors, in particular the inability to build plant in wartime to meet growing demand. Shorter term issues such as coal supply problems and hydroelectric capacity limited by drought exacerbated this situation.  In 1952, NSW had construction/ installation work in progress at no fewer than 15 sites (of which Tallawarra was one). Many of these were smaller plants such as the pack set installations noted above. Others though were larger plant, the precursors of the move to significantly larger generation units.  The size of the Tallawarra units reflected that shift.

The first stage (‘A Station’) comprised four 30 MW units each consisting of a 140t/h Simon Carves boiler (operating at 4.3MPa and 463 C) and a 30 MW Thompson-Houston two-stage turbogenerator.  The ‘B Station of the second stage was two 100MW units, each comprising a 360 t/h ICAL boiler (at 11.3 MPa and 538 C) and a three-stage English Electric turbogenerator. This second stage was completed in 1961, giving a station capacity of 320 MW.  

Tallawarra Power Station, A & B  nd

From Trove

The development of Tallawarra, like that of the Port Kembla station, was a reflection of the shifts occurring in both technology and policy in the generation field.  Tallawarra (and Wangi, the other larger plant developed around the same time) were both large plants situated immediately adjacent to their coal supplies, with associated extended reticulation to deliver power to points of consumption.  Earlier stations had been small and located near their consumers, with associated coal transport as a result. An early advocate of this approach was Mr William Corrin, a consulting engineer to the Wollongong Council. In a public lecture on the development of the Port Kembla station in 1926, he outlined the strong case (premised on issues of efficiency and hence cost) for larger stations located at their fuel source, rather than their customers.


Corin was a competent engineer who had been involved with the design of supplies to a number of towns besides Wollongong.  He is credited with having been a force for the development of higher pressure and temperature (and hence higher efficiency) steam plant, as was to be the direction in the future. The design of the Port Kembla station was reflective of those views.  Corin was also an ardent advocate for the domestic application of electricity.


Tallawarra was notable for one aspect of its fuel supply.  The station had been designed to burn a lower grade coal than had been more generally used.  This coal was supplied from the Huntly Colliery, an operation owned and developed by the Joint Coal Board of the time, at a cost of some £2,000,000 – a significant sum for the day.  Tallawarra used the entire output of Huntly when in operation.

William Corin’s recommendation for central siting of power stations was qualified on the basis of acceptable transmission cost.  The Port Kembla station had at one point had the largest customer region in the state, with correspondingly extensive transmission systems.  Its tie to Burrinjuck dam at 132 kV was a novelty of its time. In similar manner, the principal tie constructed out of Tallawarra (to Goulburn)  was designed for 330,000 V transmission, one of the highest in the world of that time. A simlar tie later linked Tallawarra and Sydney.

Tallawarra Power Station ceased operation in 1989, and the facilities were progressively demolished over the following ten years.  In 2003 the site, then owned by the descendant of the NSW Electricity Commission, was sold to an American private power investor, TXU, which later became TRUenergy (and later, EnergyAustralia).  The site’s association with power generation was to continue – its new owner constructed an sophisticated combined-cycle power plant, (a peaking station) consisting of a 288 MW gas turbine and a 160 MW 3 stage steam turbine driving a single 450 MW generator.  With an overall output of 435 MW, the unit features a waste heat boiler supporting a superheater, and reheaters for the IP and LP stages of the steam turbine. The facility incorporates some of the infrastructure from the original Tallawarra station, including cooling water systems linked to Lake Illawarra.

Electricity Generation and the NSW Electricity Commission

Electricity generation in NSW arose from the need for developing industries to furnish their own supplies – some (as in the case of Electrolytic Refining & Smelting being largely based on electrochemical processes, and others (for example, various coal mines) looking to greater efficiency and safety in their operations.  As such generation was an essentially private undertaking, with little coordination between generators. Several government bodies – the Government Railways and the Public Works Department – built generation to match their own specific needs.  Elsewhere, commercial organisations such as that which originally supplied Wollongong sprang up to meet a growing demand for domestic and commercial application of electric power. Some firms generating for their own purposes (such as the Corrimal Cokeworks and Australian Iron & Steel exported some part of their output to meet public or related corporate needs adjacent to their operations.

This situation prevailed essentially up to the end of World War II.  Recommendations had been made prior to that (eg in the 1937 Report on Electrical Development in NSW) for a centralisation of generation policy and development; however wartime circumstances precluded any significant power development, notwithstanding ongoing demand growth.  That mismatch of demand and supply led to major power shortage problems following the war. In response the state government in 1949 appointed Harold Conde, then general manager of the Balmain power company (the Electric Light and Power Supply Corporation Ltd) as State Emergency Electricity Commissioner to direct the coordinated supply and distribution of power.  It was Conde’s initiative to procure the ‘pack sets’ which were to help support the power system from Port Kembla and other locations. The formation of the State Electricity Commission was to follow shortly after, and its assumption of control of state generating facilities such as the Port Kembla station. This was not without controversy – particularly in relation to Sydney’s main supply – the Balmain Power Station, with talk of ‘nationalisation’.


Electricity Commission and Balmain Power Station

From Trove

The era of the central Electricity Commission endured for some forty years, until the deregulation and privatisation initiatives of the 1990s and 2000s.  Ultimately, after the demise of the Port Kembla and Tallawarra stations, the only generation left in the Illawarra was privately owned, as was the distribution system which had evolved over the previous hundred years.