Electrifying the farm

Thew & McCann design consultant, Adolf Lamprecht, a 28-year veteran with the Electricity Authority of NSW, provides a personal insight into one of the historic infrastructure projects of the past 60 years – the electrification of the farms and rural communities of New South Wales.

Today, mains electricity supply is taken for granted by almost everybody, even in some of the more remote districts of Australia.

At the beginning of my working life, in the middle of the 20th century, this was certainly not the case. In the late 1940s less than one in four farms throughout New South Wales were connected to mains power supply.

I have been fortunate to play a small part in the decades-long project that was to deliver mains electricity to a large proportion of people living and working in rural communities throughout NSW.

In 1946, the NSW Government undertook the challenge of electrification by establishing the Rural Electricity Subsidy Scheme that provided funds to local supply authorities (normally shire or county councils) to help cover the cost of capital expenditure on electricity distribution equipment for rural communities involved in primary production.

The Electricity Authority of NSW, responsible for the co-ordination and development of power supply, administered the scheme, which was intended to last just 10 years and aimed to connect around 40,000 farms.

In fact, the scheme continued for more than 30 years and by the mid 70s it had assisted in the connection of more than 100,000 rural consumers to mains supply with expenditure of around $100 million.

One of the key low-cost technologies that suited this distribution of electric power to sparsely settled areas was the single wire earth return system, or SWER, the network system that is now common across Australia.

In 1957, the Electricity Authority released a manual titled “Single Wire Earth Return Distribution for Rural Areas”. This manual formed the standard for network extension under the rural subsidy scheme and was produced by a small group of engineers that included myself as chief draftsman.

We also produced the design manual for overhead line construction used throughout the life of the rural subsidy scheme.

At the time, Electricity Authority chairman, Vivian Brain asked how long it would take us to prepare the manual. We said six months and he replied: “Make it six weeks!”

The manual was prepared on time, providing design drawings and instructions for the construction of all overhead lines. It was titled “Overhead Line Construction Standard Drawings and Design Data.”

When revisiting the 1961 annual report of the Authority recently, in which the first edition of the manual was reported, I noted that it was described as being in ‘loose-leaf’ form. What it doesn’t say is that the copies of the document were actually produced by our small team using an old roneo copier in order to get the document out as quickly as possible.

I also noted that in the Appendices to these annual reports there was reference to the Estimates of Cost of Power Lines and Substations for Rural Electricity Supply (issued annually). This sparked my memory and leads to a slightly ironic twist, given my current employment.

The calculations for subsidies relied on a reliable source of prices for line hardware. From the mid-1950s until the end of the scheme Thew & McCann supplied the bulk of those prices.

Not only were they reliable in terms of pricing accuracy and response, they were also one of the few organizations willing to arrange the manufacture of components to our design specifications.

The Rural Electricity Subsidy Scheme passed into history in the late 1970s when the Electricity Authority’s functions were absorbed by the Energy Authority, which operated in this role throughout most of the 1980s. In the 1990s, there were big changes in the whole system of generation, transmission and distribution of electricity.

Country Energy is the modern day provider of electricity supply for customers in the rural regions of NSW and it operates on a vast scale compared to the time when I was involved in these services. Country Energy operates the largest electricity supply network in Australia and its supply footprint covers 95 per cent of NSW, with 200,000 km of power lines servicing 800,000 customers (sourced from the published 2009/10 Annual Report of Country Energy).

I experienced the supply industry in its pioneering days but it is now at a vastly more sophisticated level of operation, which is a good thing for those country customers who take reliable electricity supply as a ‘given’ in their daily lives.