Opinion: The spirit of Waddamana

5 May 2016

The Waddamana Power Station marked the beginning of government-operated hydro-electricity in Tasmania. Ironically, the 100th anniversary of its opening falls today… in the midst of Tasmania’s current energy challenges.

Powering Tasmania at the moment is both hard work and complicated.

The current energy troubles, the result of record low rainfall and the extended Basslink failure, have reminded us that plentiful power can’t be taken for granted.

The energy that powers our lights, heating and fridges, as well as our industries and livelihoods doesn’t just “exist”.

The energy that our modern, island community depends on is the product of technological know-how, innovative thinking, careful decision-making, and sheer intensive hard work.

As Tasmanians, we’ve all been reminded of that brutal and unforgiving reality in recent months.

Together, we’re having to navigate unprecedented challenges, stay focused and determined under great pressure, and think up creative new solutions to keep the Tasmanian community and economy strong and secure.

But history has a way of throwing up interesting quirks. And ironically, in the midst of Tasmania’s modern energy challenges, today throws-up one of those salient quirks.

Because, 100 years ago today, Tasmanians were having to struggle, innovate, stay determined, and work hard just to get the lights on and build for the future.

100 years ago today, government-owned hydropower generation began at the Waddamana Power Station.

To many people, the rugged landscape of Tasmania’s Central Highlands may seem an unlikely place for such innovation. But it was here that our clean energy story began.

A private company started building Waddamana in 1910. It quickly hit financial difficulties, and the Tasmanian Government bought the partially-built station in 1914, and the Hydro-Electric Department was formed.

Waddamana became our first commissioned power station in 1916, when the flick of a switch effectively moved Tasmania into the industrial age.

Two initial generators at Waddamana provided the first hydro-electric power to Hobart.  Each machine had a capacity of 4900 horse power (3.65 megawatts).  The combined output was enough to supply up to 300 homes.  In 1916, the Hydro had about 2000 customers in the Hobart area.

Waddamana Power Station A was decommissioned in 1965, when more efficient hydro-electric technology took over. It became a museum in 1988, and offers a unique insight into the early industrialisation of Tasmania.

Original machinery has been restored, and historical photos and artefacts from Waddamana Village give visitors a taste of life in this rugged environment in the early 1900s.

The museum attracts close to 6000 visitors a year, including locals, school groups, domestic and international tourists and special interest bus tours.

The significant heritage values of the site, and its important place in Tasmanian history, were acknowledged in 2014 when Waddamana was listed on the Tasmanian Heritage Register.

But the true human story of Waddamana was one of struggle, risk-taking and resilience.

In the early 20th Century, the Central Highlands of Tasmania was frontier country. Building and operating a massive industrial project in such remote and rugged territory was a physical and emotional struggle for everyone involved.

The pioneers who secured Tasmania’s social and economic future worked long hours and performed gruelling physical duties far from the comforts of home and family.

Tasmania’s first Hydro workers – the people who built Waddamana and set-up Tasmania for a secure and prosperous future exactly a century ago – had to think on their feet, graft out solutions, and solve their fair share of crises which threatened to derail everything.

Those original Hydro workers were the embodiment of a pioneering and resourceful spirit where every success had to be earned, and the price of failure would be dire.

The Hydro family of today has faced a similar challenge. We’re having to call on the same spirit of resilience and resourcefulness to see our community though to a secure situation.

Hydro Tasmania’s engineers and technical experts have made the impossible possible. In just a matter of weeks, their ingenuity and commitment has effectively installed several new power stations around the state. It’s the same Hydro spirit that saw the completion of Waddamana and the expansion of hydropower schemes in Tasmania that still serve us today.

Recent heavy rain, and the promise of more throughout winter, has raised optimism that the worst of the current challenges are behind us.

However, there’s no room for complacency. There’s much hard work ahead to put our island’s energy supply on a strong and secure footing. And there will be lessons to be learned in seeking to prevent such a situation from ever happening again. 

Recent months have been extremely challenging. But the people of Hydro Tasmania remain very proud of our history and heritage.

And so, today we commemorate 100 years since the officially opening of Waddamana Power Station.

In doing so, we celebrate the resilience, determination and commitment of Tasmanians who effectively built a future for their island.

We celebrate a history and heritage built on making things happen and “finding a way”.

And we look back 100 years to draw strength and inspiration from the pioneers who showed us that together, as a company and a community, we can fix any problem, we can forge a secure future, and we will overcome.

Steve Davy, CEO of Hydro Tasmania.

Waddamana Museum is open daily and admission is free of charge.  Information is available atwww.hydro.com.au/waddamana

This opinion piece ran in the Mercury newspaper on 6 May 2016.

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