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Alan Walsh (at rear) dusts the old dials and switches on the control board while Keith Batty lubricates bearings on the generator. Photo/Tim Cuff

Inside Tākaka's community-run power station

When the lights went out at Tākaka’s hydro-power station, the community decided to take matters into their own hands.

The day the Pupu Hydro Power Scheme’s generator blew up in a shower of sparks was the day the company declared the station doomed to demolition. Fortunately, a bunch of local livewires hatched a plan not only to continue to provide power to Golden Bay but also to light up the faces of the community through a financial spin-off.

The 1980 malfunction was inevitable due to lack of investment in the infrastructure, says Roger Price, one of the Tasman Power Board linesmen fatefully ordered to crank up the system to full output – despite it having been dormant for some time – because extra power was urgently needed.

Over the next few months, a group of 38 locals – including Price – joined forces to save the scheme. Led by Teri Goodall, Jim Baird and Chub Wood, they formed the Pupu Hydro Society, intent on preserving this precious piece of engineering history: when the station officially opened in October 1929, it was the first source of electricity for the Tākaka township. Ninety years on, the world’s only community-owned power station remains a profitable contributor to the national grid, enabling generous donations to local organisations. 

“We were determined it wouldn’t be scrapped,” says founding member Paul Sangster, who is still actively involved. “We took [our case] to ministers when we heard the power board had sold the gear, and threatened to lie on the road to block it from leaving.” After 18 months of negotiation, the board agreed to sell the station to the group for $50,000.

“Raising money was hard,” recalls Sangster. “The doubters thought we couldn’t run a power station and were wasting our time. We had no assets, either – just a burnt-out generator, a dilapidated shed and a leaking water-race feed.”

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A 350kW Vickers generator, brought over from Motueka for parts. Photo/Tim Cuff.

Constructed in 1901, the 3.7km Campbell Creek water race was originally used for sluicing gold deposits from the rugged countryside bordering what is now Kahurangi National Park. Almost half the length of it was repurposed as a feeder to the hydro-power scheme, a headpond was created and a pipeline installed, with the water plummeting 107m to the powerhouse to drive the generator – producing up to 250 kilowatts.

Volunteers dedicated thousands of hours and spent more than $300,000 to preserve the power station as an operating museum, with Goodall, Baird and Wood putting their homes on the line to guarantee a bank loan. Fortunately Swedish firm ASEA, which had manufactured the generator, shipped it back for a full repair at no charge. “We were so grateful to those who had faith in us,” says Sangster, 69, who’s standing for his 10th term as a ward councillor. “After all, we were just an enthusiastic bunch of bloody amateurs with no real knowledge of power supply. We’re pretty proud we achieved what we’d been told was impossible!”

The station was finally switched back on in 1987. With income earned through supplying output to the grid, the society has reinvested in the project, including blasting a road up to the water race, building bridges, creating the popular Pupu Hydro Walkway, and lining the raceway with concrete.

“We’re putting huge amounts of money into the community and the scheme’s held in trust for the people of Golden Bay,” says Sangster. “It’s starting to be what we dreamed of all those years ago – we’ve proved those doubters otherwise.” 

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.