In the case of the South Esk River proposal, community resentment to the idea of private ownership of a hydroelectric scheme used to supply public street lighting led the Launceston municipality to seek and obtain rights to harness the waters of the South Esk River to generate electricity and in 1885, Launceston became the first town in the world with public street lighting supplied from hydroelectricity. When the scheme was expanded soon after, households in Launceston became the first in Australia to be supplied with electricity from a hydroelectric plant.
In 1901 a proposal to construct a large hydroelectric scheme on the Shannon River, draining Great Lake on Tasmania’s central plateau, was taken to the Tasmanian Government. Being risk averse and not wanting to commit to such a large investment ahead of a market for the electricity materialising, the government demurred. A market for hydroelectricity did, however, materialise eight years later. It came in the form of a BHP metallurgist, John Gillies, who had developed a new electrolytic zinc refining process and who was looking for a low cost source of large amounts of electricity. Gillies formed the Complex Ores Company and in 1909 the company was granted concessionary rights to use the waters of the central plateau to generate electricity. The project involved building a 49.1 MW scheme at Waddamana. At the same time as work began on that project, the Mt Lyell Mining Company began work on a 9 MW scheme at Lake Margaret using migrant labour from Malta.
In northern Queensland, construction of a scheme on the Barron Gorge began, but the difficult terrain and lack of roads made construction difficult and the scheme was not completed until 30 years later. The Waddamana project in Tasmania also struggled due to the harsh conditions, the difficulties of construction in a remote area, and the outbreak of World War I.
Not wanting to lose the project, the Tasmanian Government acquired the company’s assets and established the Hydro Electric Department (now Hydro Tasmania). The Department proceeded with the project and the first stage of the Waddamana Power station was commissioned on 6 May 1916.
The Snowy Mountains Scheme
The next phase of hydroelectric development in Australia occurred in the post-World War II era. In Tasmania, planning and construction of hydroelectric schemes accelerated while on the mainland the largest engineering project ever undertaken in Australia, the Snowy Mountain irrigation and hydroelectric scheme, was planned and started.