Inside the South Lismore power house

Over the last few decades, North Coast residents have generally been using electricity generated at a distance, from centralised sources such as coal-fired power stations in the Hunter Valley.

Yet power generation in this region originated in a very different fashion, sometimes utilising renewable energy sources that were close at hand. Early power stations included those located at Nymboida (hydro), Mullumbimby (hydro), and Lismore (liquid fuels and gas.)

In 1911, the Lismore Electric Supply Company was created, and a power station was built on Carrington Street in the CBD. Early uses of electricity included pumping water, illuminating streetlights, and running hospital equipment. In 1927, this was superseded by a larger facility on Bexhill Road (the road heading to Bangalow, today known as Brunswick Street), located not far from the site of the present-day Westpac Rescue Helicopter base. It contained a crude oil generator, in addition to a Premier engine powered by gas generated on-site.

An image of the Bexhill Road power plant, from the 11th June 1927 Northern Star.

 

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The same building today, re-purposed as a council depot.

Lismore’s involvement with electricity in the late 1920s was far from straightforward, with Lismore City Council entering into an ultimately unsuccessful partnership with the Moonem Electricity Company that was planning to use coal as a fuel. In 1931, Lismore transferred the local electricity network to Clarence River County Council (CRCC), and a decision was made to construct another upgraded power station for CRCC, this time in South Lismore.

The Lismore Power Station, as it was known, was built on the corner of Three Chain Road and Union Street, consisting of a steel frame with asbestos cladding, and a concrete floor. In July 1932, it started running with a capacity of 1.12 megawatts (mW.) This fairly nondescript rectangular building stands there today, smaller than would be expected of anything described as a power station.

A 1942 view of the power station, taken from Union Street.

Its primary historical interest is with the impressive range of historically significant engines that still lie within.

Along the north wall, run a series of mufflers intended for noise reduction, formerly accompanied by six impressively sized cooling towers, measuring somewhere in the region of six metres long and six to eight metres tall. Water run down their sides, and each was surrounded by a type of moat.

This remarkable image, taken during the 1954 flood, clearly shows the 6 cooling towers, and their impressive size.

Water that had been pumped from the river via a special pump house was circulated to the engines. An adjacent weatherboard cottage fronting Union Street was used as an administration centre. The main feeder line to Lismore passed across the river via a submarine cable.

In the early 1930s, transport was still dominated by the river, and a wharf was built for incoming shipments to the facility. Fuel was transported by ship, and was pumped from steamers to storage tanks close to the building. Eventually traditional river transport was discontinued, and trucks took over. The wharf had been largely dismantled by the 1950s.

This early 30s era was a time of fast expansion in local power usage. Consumption in the Lismore area rose from around one million units in 1931 to four million by 1935. Lismore was plugged into to the Nymboida grid via a 66 kilovolt (kV) line in 1933, and in 1938 it joined up with Mullumbimby Power Station at Dunoon through a 33kV connection.

When the power station was decommissioned in 1990, after 58 years of life, its generation capacity had risen more than six-fold to 7.38mW. At some time in the early 90s, there was an unfortunate incident where two diesel tanks at the facility caught fire, sending black smoke in the direction of Lismore. Fortunately the fire was quickly contained.

During the 1990s, there were plans, ultimately fruitless, for the building to be emptied in order to be used by Country Energy for other purposes. This would have involved the contents being transported to The House With No Steps, near Alstonville, for the creation of a museum. Some time in the mid-1990s, the cooling towers were dismantled, and the weatherboard house was removed. In 2017, the power house building underwent an overhaul, with asbestos removed from the walls, and the external appearance spruced up.

I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to visit, facilitated by Ian Mackie of Country Energy whose father worked at the plant. Access is via a side door, and inside there is an abrupt transition to a different industrial universe that requires some mental adjustment. There is a lot to take in, and Ian points out that with repeated visits to the facility, new details are usually spotted. Eight large engines are lined up with their exhausts extending out of the building. Thinner pipes running alongside the exhausts were for the circulation of cooling water.

Despite the fact that I had earlier seen a set of images, their impressive physical size comes as a shock. With the machines being about three metres tall, you feel dwarfed walking around at ground level. Most of the engines have metal ladders leading up to raised elevation walkways. Several are a yellowish colour. It feels vaguely steampunk. A sign visible when walking in through one of the side doors reads ‘Danger 33000V.’ Another warning about hearing protection is prominently displayed. During the power station’s operational life, there was a higher tolerance of noise and air pollution, due to different societal expectations. Such a plant would never be built today.

Along the south side is a long row of antique control equipment. Being from long before the digital era, everything is manually controlled, via dials and levers. The colour black dominates.

On the west side closest to Union Street, sitting on pallets, is a diverse range of equipment and accessories. At the other end, opposite the two easternmost engines closest to the river, is a small workshop, with a mezzanine floor above that was added later. Two overhead gantries, with ten-tonne and two-tonne capacities, were used for moving equipment.

Below is a rundown of the engines, running from the Union Street end of the building towards the river.

1) GM V16. The most powerful of the engines, this is hidden behind a soundproof insulation containment structure. Together with another identical GM model (3), it could be heard across Lismore despite the insulation. Unlike the others, which ran on diesel, the GM motors used heavy crude. Both of the GMs had an electric start, unlike the others that were started using compressed air.

A rare look at one of the GM V16s.

 

GM V16.

 

GM V16.

2) English Electric 8L. An eight-cylinder model believed to date from the late 1940s. Identical to 5) and 6).

2) English Electric.

 

One of the English Electrics.

3) GM V16, also housed within its own soundproof structure.

4) Davey Paxman 8VPE from 1932, together with a Crompton Parkinson generator. The most remarkable engine in the building, this is the only one of its kind ever built by the British manufacturer, and also the largest that the company ever made. Following a series of mergers and takeovers, Davey Paxman is still running as part of the company MAN B&W Diesel. The choice of Davey Paxman was likely influenced by its three 3- and 4-cylinder motors having earlier been installed in Norco’s Lismore Butter Factory.

The Paxman plays an important role in the power station’s history, being one of the original three engines to be used when operations began in 1932. It supplied 650 kilowatts (kW), alongside two smaller motors relocated from the Bexhill Road power station (230kW and 240 kW.)

5) English Electric 8L, eight cylinders.

6) English Electric 8L, eight cylinders.

A space between 6 and 7 was taken up by an engine that failed catastrophically in the early 1950s, and which was removed. This area is now taken up by controls moved from the Bexhill Road power station. A hunt through Trove uncovered a news item giving 19th February 1952 as the date that this took place. According to a story passed down to relatives of power station workers, one night an employee was requested to increase the power capacity, against his better judgement, to supply the Iluka-Evans Head district. Apparently this person followed orders, and the engine failure was the result. Certainly, the news at that item reveals that a lack of rain in the Nymboida Valley was causing a squeeze on the region’s electricity supply, and that load-shedding was taking place, with different parts of Lismore managing without power for different times of the day. Assuming that this action caused the engine failure, it was certainly kept quiet, with only the briefest mention given in the Northern Star.

7) English Electric Fullagar 8Q, 8-cylinder. Believed to date from the early 1940s. As with its sister engine (8), this is taller than the others, and correspondingly both are situated at a lower level, accessible via steps, to accommodate the extra height. Named after the marine engineer W. H. Fullagar, these engines were frequently used in ships, and about a hundred were made in different sizes. On closer inspection, the Fullagars have one or two unusual features, including a row of test tube-like structures along the side that are in fact thermometers.

8) English Electric Fullagar 8Q. 8-cylinder.

Being a kind of Lismore institution, it is unsurprising that many locals remember the power station. Kerrie Melchior used to live next door but one in the 1960s, on the north side adjacent to the mufflers and cooling towers, in a house that has since been removed, located in what is now part of an extensive Essential Energy depot. Perhaps she became familiar with the sound very quickly, because she was never really bothered by it. Similarly, she was unaware of any pollution smells, with the exception of a particular chemical that was used for cleaning the engines. She sometimes used to play in the building, where her father worked.

Allan Hicks’ uncle Kingsley Hicks was involved in the running of the plant. He lived next door, in the house sandwiched between it and Kerrie’s place. As a child, Allan remembers visiting and roaming around, with the most enduring impressions being the darkness and the noise coming from the engines.

Glen Gosper remembers travelling there by pushbike at about the age of twelve with a group of children, and being shown around by an employee. It was an era with a completely different approach to health and safety, and the children were not even wearing any shoes.

Over the past year, a dedicated group has been active in working to preserve the site, and its history, including documents. They meet monthly, and have established themselves as an incorporated association. Working bees have already started, involving cleaning, identifying and tagging spare parts, and assessing the level of work needed to bring one or more of the engines back into operational order.

This last job is a major challenge. Because of the building’s location, it is prone to flooding. For a period, it is known that bunding was used to keep out floodwater, but some water has inevitably made its way into the building. Given their lower-lying location, the Fullagars especially are liable to have been affected by water, and also have some sand that has entered their oil sumps.

Anyone who is interested and may want to help out should call Ian on 0418 499 844, or email him at nrpowerhousemuseum@gmail.com

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