The generator set was built for the 1908 Franco-British exhibition, in White City, London. The Pelton wheel was the first of its kind built by British hydraulic engineers Boving & Co and the governor was built by Gens Orton of Switzerland. There is no record of who built the dynamo and electrical control gear.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the complete plant was purchased by the Akaroa Borough Council and transported to Akaroa where it was installed in a new brick building. It was opened with much flourish on the 9th of September 1911. One of the first towns in Canterbury to have electricity, the occasion was celebrated with a banquet in the Oddfellows Hall which was attended by dignitaries from near & far, some arriving on the steam tug Lyttelton. Speeches were made, toasts were proposed and the evening culminated in a big moment for Akaroa, – the mayor flicked a switch and the town was bathed in electric light for the first time. The Christchurch Press reporter watching the spectacle was rather underwhelmed: “It was rather unfortunate that the moon was, on Saturday a most uncompromising rival of outside artificial light so the visitors could not see what the full effect of the new scheme would be,” he reported before conceeding “certainly the row of strong lights along the esplanade looked exceedingly well”.

Ninety eight years later, the tug, the power plant and the Oddfellows hall (renamed The Gaiety) are all still around, a tribute to the preservationists!

The reservoir was fed initially only from the Balguerie Stream but very soon afterwards a second feed from the Grehan Stream was added in an effort to supply more energy to satisfy the rapid load growth.

The direct current dynamo was connected with a centre earth and distribution was at plus and minus 110 volts via a three wire system. This was later changed to a two wire system operating at 220 volts. Demand very soon outstripped the station’s capacity to supply, from an inadequate water supply, and a suction gas engine was added to drive the dynamo to supplement the supply in times of low water availability. The engine was housed in a new building which was built alongside and to the north of the original power house. Very little is known about this engine and it appears that it was not successful. The new building also housed a store and workshop. The resident electrical engineer, a Mr Lewthwaite, devised a very clever machine for twisting several strands of copper conductor into a single cable which was used in the distribution system. Sadly there is no information about this machine and none of it has survived.

In 1923 when the National Grid reached Akaroa, the original dynamo generator was replaced with a three phase alternator so that the plant could be paralleled with the system and, from this time onwards, the station was only used as a supplement during load peaks. The alternator and control gear were manufactured by the American firm of General Electric. Other stations throughout the country used equipment from this manufacturer also. The alternator was 3 phase 3,300 volts and all switching was done at this voltage. Distribution to the north and south of the village was at 3,300 volts with local distribution at 400 volts.

The two-pole structure was the terminal for the distribution system

This photo shows the original two pole structure, which was located behind the power house and was the terminal structure for the distribution system. During excavation for a retaining wall in 2002, several bits & pieces from this structure were unearthed and are now on display. Also unearthed were the remains of a twelve-inch diameter blue and white enamelled light shade which would have been used in the powerhouse. The three sets of porcelain feed-through insulators, which carried the wires to this structure, are still in the brick wall at the back of the building and inside there is evidence of some of the electrical gear. The original telephone isolation equipment has been restored and moved inside from its place under the back eave.

The equipment was decommissioned in 1955 but remained in the building for the next ten years until it was sold to the Maruia Springs Hotel in the Lewis Pass area, where it supplied power to the resort until 1997. In the 1980s, history has it that a group of bikies took offence at being asked to leave the hotel and with the aid of some diesel from the standby generator, set fire to the power house. The equipment was completely destroyed. Not to be discouraged, the owners completely restored the machine with the alternator being rewound for 400 volts instead of 3,300 volts. The electrical control system however was completely changed and soon after, the swiss oil governor was replaced with a load dump type which allowed the machine to run at full output all the time. During its time at Maruia, several attempts were made to increase the power output, the alternator is rated at 130kW, one of which resulted in the shearing of the main shaft! – We still have a piece showing the break. The shaft was replaced and a new set of buckets was cast but still the output was insufficient so a new machine was installed.

After the machine was returned to the peninsula in 1997, ABB Service in Christchurch undertook a full overhaul of the alternator and exciter. During cleaning down, the original grey paint was uncovered so the whole machine was repainted in its original colour. The issue of where to install it had still not been resolved. The Gallery committee was adamant that the dirty, noisy, smelly equipment could not be reinstalled in the power house as that would rob them of valuable space. Orion, the local lines company who owns the building, came to the rescue. As a centenary project they agreed to upgrade the building by adding a new section at the north end which would be the entrance foyer, toilets and an artists green room. As well, some of the internal walls were removed between the old workshop and the gallery, and a whole new gallery space was created. A recycled Matai floor was installed in one corner for the piano, and the rest of the floor was concreted and carpeted. As well as providing a superb, enlarged space for the gallery, it made available the power house area so that the dirty, noisy, smelly machinery could be reinstated into its original place.

Upon lifting the wooden floor which had been installed over the old concrete floor, all the fixings, penstock, draught tube etc were revealed and all that was required was to weld new bolts on to the old stubs for the machine mounts. During preparation for repainting, the walls revealed their original colours and the power house has been repainted accordingly. We even found an Electric Shock poster to replace the one shown in this photo, which was taken soon after the plant was closed in 1955. The operator is Mr. Clarrie Bryant whose widow opened the restored Orion Powerhouse Gallery in November 2003.

The generator in 1955 operated by Mr. Clarrie Bryant

The fully restored machine was returned to its 1911 mountings in September 2003. Next was the job of remaking the control panels which had been destroyed in the Maruia fire. Fortunately there are several photos in existence both before and after the fire, which have been a great help. Meters, relays, the marble panels and the various ancillary parts have been sourced from throughout the country and the panels have been recreated with period equipment. Because we wanted to be able to connect to the system, Orion required a certain level of protection so the Generator Protection panel is not the same as the original. However, the Generator Control panel is almost identical. The remade panels have been installed in the position of the 1911 DC control panel because the 1923 position is now the access between the gallery and the power house.

The issue of water is a major one as the reservoir, built for the station, became the town water supply when the generator was stilled in 1955.  Initially the penstock was used to bring the water to the village for the town supply but the connection was closed off at a later date when a new pipe was laid to the reservoir. We do not know the condition of the ten inch diameter spiral, riveted penstock but it is likely to be completely unserviceable. In November 2016 a new 150mm diameter pipe was run from the street water main into the Pelton wheel. This has given us sufficient water to run the machine and we have again generated enough electricity to light the power house lights. The system has been arranged so that the machine can be used as a synchronous condenser to help with voltage control in Akaroa although it is unlikely that it will ever be used in this manner. 

In 2014 we were honoured with a VERO Heritage Restoration Award which recognised the hard work and dedication of the trust in returning and restoring the equipment, and Orion’s restoration of the building. The citation reads “An invaluable part of Canterbury’s industrial heritage restored to the very highest of standards. Orion strengthened the category 2-listed Power House Gallery following the earthquakes, retaining the industrial feel of the interiors. The Trust sourced original electrical equipment and restored the generators and control gear into fully operational order. This project is complemented by museum standard interpretation and the publication of All our Volts.”

As a result of significant publicity following this event, the original rev counter, which had been missing since before the Maruia fire, was returned to us and is now back in its rightful place on the governor.

We were further honoured with a Christchurch City Council Civic award in 2015. At the presentation, Mayor Dalziel enthused “You must go and see this.

We have recently installed equipment onto the Gallery ceiling which replicates the 3,300 volt switching system originally installed, and the water-hammer relief valve on the main penstock has been restored.

Throughout the project the generosity of people and companies has been amazing. Without the generous and enthusiastic support of many people we would not have achieved a half of the work done. These people are listed on the glass wall separating the gallery from the power house.

We run the machine briefly on special occasions.