Brilliance of yesteryear
By Mary Shanahan
John Chambers must have been “a hell of a man” to have thought of building a power station in Hawke’s Bay more than 100 years ago, a Swedish hydro-electric specialist said yesterday.
Marketing and sales manager for ABB Generation which supplies equipment for power generation in New Zealand and Australia, Bengt Lorenskog, was visiting the tiny privately owned power station bordering the Maraetotara River.
He was intrigued that the plant still supplies power to heat the Mokopeka homestead.
Built in 1892, the power station is thought to be the oldest of its type in the world still operating.
While there are power stations of the same vintage in Sweden, says Mr Lorenskog, they are museum pieces and their turbines and generators are started up only for special occasions.
Mokopeka was the brainchild of John Chambers junior, the second generation to farm the property, southeast of Havelock North.
John Chambers based his plant on a 14HP Victor turbine and a second-hand 8kW 110-volt DC generator originally installed in London’s St Pancras railway station in 1886, the first railway station in the world to be lit by electricity.
With the help of his farm staff, he built the dam and hand-dug a one-metre deep head-race, constructed the power-house, and designed and built his own voltage control panels.
The plant, in operation from 1892, powered lighting, equipment in the woolshed, an irrigation system and John Chamber’s own inventions including a pop-up toaster and New Zealand’s first electric stove.
Mr Lorenskog was alerted to the power station by one of his company’s British clients who had photographed it while visiting Mokopeka.
In 1926 his company supplied a replacement 17kW generator when the original could not keep up with demand.
The new equipment included an automatic governor to regulate water supply and provide a constant voltage output.
When drought dried the river in 1966, the farm was connected to the public power supply.
Richard Chambers, who now owns Mokopeka, says an inverter could be installed to transform the DC output to AC for powering modern-day appliances.
“But I don’t want to tamper with the past. I want to leave it as it is,” he says of his great grandfather’s masterpiece.
Photo caption – Richard Chambers, left, and Bengt Lorenskog, of ABB Generation, in Sweden, inspect the old generator. Mr Lorenskog is holding papers from the basement of his company in Sweden, which ordered the generator in 1924.