Brief History of Power Generation in Victoria

Yallourn Open Cut flood(Sydney Morining Herald)
Yallourn Open Cut flood (Sydney Morning Herald)

Electricity in Melbourne was originally provided by small companies and municipalities running on generators fired by black coal imported from NSW. The Old Brown Coal Mine at Yallourn North was acquired by the Mines Department during the 1916 NSW coal miners’ strike. At this time there had been some political debate about whether to pursue brown coal fired generators or hydro-electricity. The decision went in favour of the former with the formation of the SEC in 1918 and the appointment of engineer and war hero John Monash in charge in 1920.

The Yallourn open cut was commenced in 1922 and the first electricity generated in 1928. The SEC then gradually acquired the private and municipal operations and the grid began to spread slowly across Victoria. After WWII there was massive expansion at Morwell in 1949 and then later at Loy Yang. The SEC’s cheap brown coal fired electricity was the main driving force of Victoria’s economic growth helping make it the leading manufacturer in the Commonwealth.

The mines and power production however were not problem free with moisture content of the coal being an early problem, and at various times there followed floods, fires and earth movements, which disrupted coal production in the open cuts. It was not until the late 1980s when Loy Yang was comparatively young that the first warnings were being uttered about global warming by scientists from the CSIRO. In terms of greenhouse gas production our brown coal generators were the dirtiest in the world. These warnings were ignored by successive State governments which sold all the working open cuts and their power stations to private operators between 1994 and 1999. These warnings continue to be ignored in the highest offices in the land.

The electricity grid came slowly to many outlying parts of Gippsland. Mains power had only reached the upper Tambo Valley in 1965 and was seen as a ‘godsend’ to farmers and the small towns. Farms prior to that were powered with small 32v petrol generators with batteries. The 32v plant had to be run every night, which required continuous care and maintenance, with the batteries often old and failing and their owners unwilling to purchase new ones for a procedure soon to be made redundant.

The planners ran the line run straight up the Little River valley as close to the existing farm houses as possible. I arrived in the valley less than 10 years after the grid had been installed and purchased a small block a bit more than half a kilometre from the line. The exorbitant cost of getting the mains power to my house site including going over or under the main road, meant that I opted for a stand-alone power system, originally powered by a reconditioned ‘windlite’ wind generator. 30 years later I remain a renewable energy missionary. And if climate change is not a good enough reason for a rapid ‘just transition’ in the Latrobe Valley then perhaps the quest for clean air in those communities is.