White Bay Power Station
Dictionary of Sydney staff writer
The White Bay Power Station came on line in 1917 and operated until it was decommissioned in 1984. It is the longest serving Sydney power station operating from the same building.
The station was built by the New South Wales Railway Commissioners to cope with the extension of the electric tramway system and the anticipated electrification of the city railway. At the time of its construction, electricity generation for Sydney was divided between three suppliers: the Railway Commissioners, the Sydney Municipal Council and the Electric Light and Power Supply Corporation. All three operated independently and built separate power stations. It was not until 1950, with the creation of the Electricity Commission of New South Wales that the power supply was amalgamated and finally completed in 1956. The Railway Commissioners' power stations at White Bay and Ultimo, as well as regional stations at Newcastle and Lithgow, were brought under the Electricity Commission of New South Wales in January 1953.
The need for a new power house in Sydney was first officially mooted in 1910, to cope with the increasing usage and consequent expansion of the electric tram system. The Railway Commissioners also wished to electrify the rail network and construct an underground system. The site for the power house was chosen after a number of alternatives outside Sydney had been considered and rejected. The White Bay site allowed both rail and dock facilities for coal and plant delivery and ash disposal. It had unlimited circulating water and was low-lying, reducing the amount of lift necessary for cooling water. It was also relatively cheap.
The power station was built in three phases. Construction began on the first stage in June 1912, with the boilers and alternators given a test run in July 1913 before the buildings were complete. The station finally came on line in May 1917, having been delayed by the outbreak of World War I.
The power station occupied a dominant position on the western edge of the city. Its boiler houses had a dramatic vertical façade, castellated parapets and steam funnels which extended upwards and faced out to the harbour and the city. The power house proper marked the entrance to the Balmain industrial waterfront, and quickly became a landmark. Today it retains its landmark quality with the remaining chimneys easily identified from many vantage points. As well as its physical presence on the landscape, the internal space of the power house inspired visitors and workers alike, with large cavernous boiler houses and turbine rooms that were cathedral-like in their industrial scale.
The power station was updated in two phases after completion, in 1925–28 and again between 1945 and 1953. In 1953 it was brought under the control of the new Electricity Commission of New South Wales. The power station was in use until 1984, when it was decommissioned.
The power station retains a sample of its machinery, representative of such collections in Sydney. The site itself is the last remaining example of a coal-dependent, harbourside industrial complex, which were once relatively common in Sydney. In 2006, White Bay was included on the New South Wales State Heritage Register.
Godden Mackay Logan, White Bay Power Station Historic Machinery Inventory and Conservation Strategies, May 2003