AT midday on Sunday, June 15, 1924, electricity from the new Yallourn Power Station first reached Melbourne when the State Electricity Commission switched on the high voltage transmission line linking Morwell and the Yarraville distribution terminal.

It was then the greatest single public infrastructure project Australia had seen, but it passed without fanfare or public ceremony.

The event marked the culmination of a five-year project to develop Victoria’s first baseload power station in the Latrobe Valley. It was proclaimed by the press as “the cessation of Victoria’s subservience … to the coal mines of Newcastle”, and would provide the foundation for the state’s industrial, economic and social prosperity over the following decades.

The centenary of Yallourn power station’s first base load electricity production will be celebrated at a special free admission open day in Morwell this Saturday – also June 15 – at Power Works, Ridge Road, Morwell, from 12 noon to 3pm. It is being held in collaboration with Energy Australia, the current owner of the Yallourn W power station.

Next week, Engineering Heritage Victoria and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) will also hold a presentation, on Thursday, June 20, to celebrate the centenary, at the RHSV headquarters at 239 A’Beckett Street in the Melbourne CBD.

The first recorded discovery of brown coal in the Latrobe Valley was 1873. Sixteen years later, the Great Morwell Coal Mining Company began producing briquettes from brown coal, but could not compete with black coal, so was wound up in 1899.

In 1920, legislation was passed creating the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, a statutory corporation with the responsibility to generate and distribute electricity, to own and operate brown coal open cuts and briquette works, and ancillary functions.

On October 1 1920, Sir John Monash was appointed general manager of the SEC, becoming permanent Chairman of the SECV from January 1 1921.

“In addition to the very significant challenges confronting the SECV engineers and miners in mining the coal was the enormous task of converting the coal energy safely, efficiently and economically into electrical energy,” wrote a senior SECV manager, John Hutchinson, in his foreword to the History of the Yallourn Power Station by Colin Harvey.

“The coal resource and coal quality was different in many ways to any other resource in the world. The resource also varied considerably across the deposit areas and raised a wide variety of major issues needing innovative solutions from the engineers and power station researchers, designers, operators and maintainers who picked up the energy conversion challenge through Yallourn power station.”

In February 1921, under the watchful eyes of SEC commissioners, horse-drawn ploughs turned the first sod on the site of the permanent Yallourn A power station. Then in April 1921, teams of men, horses and drays and later steam shovels began clearing the soil to uncover the coal.

In 1924, three years and two months later, on June 24, 1924, power began flowing down the transmission lines to Melbourne. By 1928, Yallourn A had an output of 75 megawatts (MW), and a year later, the SEC supplied nearly all Melbourne and 141 country towns and centres.

However, a devastating flood in the Latrobe River occurred in 1934. Massive rain storms pushed the river level at Yallourn power station 21 feet above its normal level, while the maximum flow of the river was five-and-a-half times the greatest previously known flows at Yallourn. The Yallourn open cut was flooded.

The flood could have undone the work of a decade and could have wrecked the industrial capability of Victoria. But neither of these dire probabilities came about due to the SEC’s remarkable response, wrote Colin Harvey, himself a former manager of Yallourn and Yallourn W power stations.

The first expansion of Yallourn A station took place in the 1930s as ‘B’ station was created. The SEC doubled its generating and coal winning capability over the 1930s and production capacity was ahead of demand.

During World War 2, demand for fuel rose 70 per cent as supplies of black coal from NSW and overseas declined, resulting in Victoria helping other states. The Yallourn power station became the base load flagship of the SEC’s small fleet.

In 1944, a devastating bushfire spread to the Yallourn open cut mine, causing further restrictions on the use of coal. For example, homeowners could only buy coal to heat water. The supply system came very close to load shedding several times during the war.

By 1949, black coal was no longer available to Victoria, and the post-war Labor Premier, John Cain Senior, gave the go ahead to ensure Victoria was not dependent on other states for power supplies, which led to the construction of Yallourn ‘C’ and ‘D’ stations.

In 1955, the Democratic Labor Party emerged and the Cain government ended, but further expansion of base load brown coal plant was proposed. In 1957, a 240MW extension (known as ‘E’ station) was proposed for service by 1961-62.

A new power station, Hazelwood, was proposed to join the fleet in 1964 and only three years later, work began on the new Yallourn W power station, while the decision was made to close the ageing Yallourn A power station.

By 1973, Yallourn W’s first unit was completed, and the last of its four units were put in operation in November 1981, giving Yallourn W a generating capacity of 1450MW.

With the development of the larger and more efficient Hazelwood and Yallourn W stations, the energy contribution of the Yallourn power station dropped steadily – about 50 per cent in the early 1960s to 30 per cent in the late 1960s. When ‘A’ station retired in 1968-69 and ‘B’ station went into cold reserve a year later, the percentage dropped to 18 per cent in 1971-72. The contribution from ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘E’ stations took another 10 years to drop to 10 per cent of system demand.

‘A’ station closed on October 25 1968, ‘B’ station on October 24 1969, ‘C’ station on September 30 1984, ‘D’ station on December 12 1985 and ‘E’ station on January 27 1989.

‘A’ station ran for 44 years, ‘B’ station for 38 years, ‘C’ station for 30 years, ‘D’ station for 28 years and ‘E’ station for 29 years. By the end of the 1980s, the Yallourn power station era was over. From June 15 1924 to January 27 1989, the Yallourn power station in one form or another, operated for 64.5 years.

Mr Hutchinson wrote that Yallourn power station in its 65-year history overcame all challenges and made an enormous contribution in enabling Victoria to grow and develop. A total of 18 per cent of all Victoria’s energy during the life of Yallourn power station came from Yallourn, with a highest contribution of 67 per cent provided in 1940-41.

“The power station continually produced more electrical power, more economically and more reliably as the station, the SECV and the state grew together,” Mr Hutchinson wrote. He added: “This history is broader than just the power station because the people involved in making electricity contributed enormously to and received great support from the community that was Yallourn.”

Over the 1980s, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B power stations were opened. In the 1990s, the power stations, including Yallourn W, were all privatised to reduce state debt.

With the current transition to renewable energy, Yallourn W is scheduled to close in 2028. Yallourn’s contribution to Victoria’s power supply will finally end.


City event for Yallourn history

THE Engineering Heritage Victoria and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria presentation on Thursday, June 20 in Melbourne will outline the key events in the development of the Yallourn Power Scheme, touching on the historic context, key engineers involved and some of the technical challenges encountered from conception through to commissioning and early operation.

The talk will be illustrated by historic images from the extensive photographic collection acquired in 1993 by the Museum of Victoria from the former State Electricity Commission, before its disaggregation and privatisation.

The speaker will be Matthew Churchward, Senior Curator, Engineering & Transport, Museums Victoria.

After originally training in mechanical engineering, Mr Churchward has spent much of the past 35 years in the museum and heritage sector. He has held a curatorial role with Museums Victoria since 1994, working on acquisitions, collection database development, public programs, exhibitions and the creation of websites and online content.

His research interests encompass Victoria’s mining, engineering and transport history – including shipping, railways, roads, bridges, ports, sewerage, water supply and electricity infrastructure.

The venue is the RHSV headquarters, 239 A’Beckett Street in the Melbourne CBD.
Phone: 03 9326 9288