Signposts on the path to modern electricity supply

Thew & McCann design consultant, Adolf Lamprecht recalls the pioneering era of the 1950s and 60s when today’s highly integrated electricity supply networks were being built. He played an important role in this development as chief draftsman and design adviser for the Electricity Authority of NSW.

I worked for the Electricity Authority for 24 years of its 34-year life, on secondment from the Electricity Commission.

The authority was set up at the end of WWII to co-ordinate and develop the electricity supply around the state and the commission was established in 1950 with responsibility for the generation and transmission of electricity.

When I joined the authority in 1955, electricity supply had only just begun to meet demand and its delivery was then in the hands of the local councils, with most detailed design and development managed by a relative few.

Two of the most critical issues absorbing our time and energy in those days were extension of supply to the still poorly serviced rural areas and maximising safety. These two priorities were replicated Australia-wide at this time.

The expansion of SWER

We now take for granted the vast SWER network throughout Australia, but it was not always so. Back in the 1950s electric power in rural areas was both disjointed and limited, with no established standards for its delivery.

In NSW, the Electricity Authority, which subsidised the development of rural electricity supply, took this matter in hand and in 1957, after considerable research, released a manual titled Single Wire Earth Return Distribution for Rural Areas.

Various supply engineers in NSW and Victoria were consulted in the preparation of this booklet, which was produced by the authority’s design engineers John Fitzpatrick and Ted Robertson, assisted by the chief draftsman, which was the role I filled.

The manual acted as a catalyst for take-up of this form of efficient and low-cost electricity supply, which was rolled out throughout the rural areas of NSW and beyond in the ensuring years.

Our small team was also responsible for the production of the Design Manual for Overhead Line Construction in 1963. At this time there was no uniform standard and our manual explained how to design overhead power lines according to the standard that we had established.

Safety first

Safety has, of course, always been a critical issue in the development of electricity supply and this issue drove the Electricity Authority in 1959 to launch a detailed investigation into earthing practices.

As a result of these investigations, the same small team of Fitzpatrick, Robertson and myself were tasked with producing a series of documents for safe and effective earthing practice. These documents were Principles of Earthing, The Earthing Handbook and The Code of Practice for Protective Earthing. They were completed in the early 60s with a series of provisional documents being released to the supply authorities in the interim.

Around this time, Thew & McCann were involved in the safe earthing issue. There was a significant safety concern with the MEGGER earth testers that were in currency because true readings could often be two-to-three times higher than the values indicated on the testing instrument and most supply authorities were not aware of this. In fact, it was necessary to conduct further calculations or corrections to get an accurate reading.

Thew & McCann imported the NORMA earth tester from Austria and it was the first electronic tester introduced into the Australian market and provided a very accurate and reliable reading without the need for any corrections.

The Electricity Authority continued in this role of design leadership until 1979, when its functions were absorbed into the responsibilities of the new Energy Authority.