Kōrero: Energy supply and use

Whārangi 5. Electricity, late 19th to mid-20th century

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

First uses of electricity

Access to electricity in the late 19th and early 20th century was limited, though in 1879 football teams from Te Aro and Thorndon fought their way to a nil-all draw under electric arc lighting, and from 1883 Parliament was lit with 300 electric lights.

From 1888 cities and some towns used electricity for street lighting and trams. Many businesses and industrial enterprises set up their own generators, and so did some farms, but few households used electricity. In the 1920s the use of electricity for home lighting increased. By the mid-1930s electrical appliances were standard in the homes of the better-off. After the Second World War they became common in all households.

Street-light envy


In 1889 Wellington became the first city in the southern hemisphere to use electric street lighting. William Skey, petrologist and poet, wrote: ‘Tonight a thousand suns resplendent shine, from Lambton’s curve to Newtown’s far confine’. Aucklanders, who were to wait another 19 years for electric street lighting, were less impressed. Wellington’s lights, huffed the Star, had the feeble power of a ‘fat and healthy glow worm’.1


Electricity consumption

In 1924, when national use was first reliably calculated, New Zealand’s electricity consumption was one petajoule – equivalent to the energy provided by around 28 million litres of regular unleaded petrol. By 1964 consumption was 30 petajoules and in 1988 it reached 94 petajoules. By 2007 it was 140.5 petajoules.

In 2007 industry consumed the most electricity, although there were more residential than industrial users. In that year:

  • 1.6 million residential users consumed 33% of total power – or 7.84 megawatts per household
  • 191,000 commercial users consumed 23.3% – or 47 megawatts each
  • 116,000 industrial users consumed 43.6% – or 145 megawatts each.

Electricity supply and transmission

Central government control of reticulation (supply and transmission) of electricity was established in a series of laws passed from the 1860s. At first local authorities, private companies and, in one instance, the Tourism Department, supplied and transmitted electricity. In 1918 they were joined by local electric power boards.

Meaty power


The Southland Frozen Meat Company was one of New Zealand’s more unusual electricity suppliers. The Bluff works supplied that town from 1903. The Mataura works supplied first Gore from 1905, and then Mataura itself from 1912. The company continued its electrical supply sideline until 1933.


In the decades immediately before and after the First World War, local authorities and central government began to set up the national grid, the transmission system needed to carry power to homes and workplaces.

Coverage in cities and towns

All New Zealand’s cities and many towns were connected to the grid and reticulated by 1920. Urban industrial and commercial users were attracted to the comparative cheapness, efficiency and cleanliness of electricity.

From the 1920s suppliers vigorously encouraged the domestic use of electricity. Showrooms displayed the latest appliances, cooking classes were held, and the cleanliness and convenience of electricity was highlighted.

Coverage in rural areas

In the 1920s and 1930s closely-settled and well-to-do farming areas, particularly those next to cities or large towns, were connected, but reticulation of remote hilly areas and the back country did not take place until after the Second World War.

Mandeno’s clothesline


The single wire earth return (SWER) wiring system was developed specifically for country reticulation. Known as ‘Mandeno’s clothesline’, after its developer Lloyd Mandeno, its cabling was No. 8 fencing wire. Mandeno’s clothesline was remarkably successful, and used in a number of other countries, particularly Australia.



There was a flat-rate charge for electricity at first, but meters became standard from 1908. There was no consistency in pricing from one area to another, and the price range was great.


Electricity wasn’t available all day at first, even in areas with good supply and transmission systems. It was standard to supply only from dusk to midnight. Rotorua had electricity from dusk to midnight from 1901; time was extended bit by bit, and by 1913 it had electricity 24 hours a day, except on Sundays.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries supply was commonly interrupted by inadequate or failing generation and transmission equipment. Once the system was further developed, power cuts more often resulted from stormy weather or supply shortages. During the Second World War power was rationed, and in some areas there were compulsory blackouts.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Neil Rennie, Power to the people. Wellington: Electricity Supply Association of New Zealand, 1989, p. 35. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Megan Cook, 'Energy supply and use - Electricity, late 19th to mid-20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/energy-supply-and-use/page-5 (accessed 23 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook, i tāngia i te 11 Mar 2010