New Zealand Dam Power

Sam Perry
November 12, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: Lake Manapouri was the subject of much protest during the 1970s. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hydroelectric power in New Zealand has been a large provider of the country's energy needs for over 100 years. From the very first industrial hydro-electric power plant which was established in 1885, to today where over half of New Zealand's electricity is generated through dam power, the enthusiastic growth of this form of energy production looks to have gradually slowed through the past two decades. The majority of growth in the renewable energy sector is looking like it will come from wind power. [1]

From Infancy to Inundation

The first industrial hydro-power station was established in the small town of Bullendale, Otago in 1885. It was used to provide energy for the nearby Phoenix Mine's 20 stamp battery and it utilised the flow of water from Skipper's Creek, a tributary of the Shotover River. [2] Reefton Power Station quickly followed in 1888, making Reefton the first town in New Zealand to have a reticulated public electricity supply coming from a hydro-electric power source. [3] Over the course of the next 40 years local authorities and private companies built numerous stations, including Horahora on the Waikato river, and Waipori in Otago. Today, over 23,000 GWh of output is produced by hydro-power stations in New Zealand, with this providing more than 55% of the country's electricity needs. [4] Other significant projects in this period include Coleridge in Canterbury (1914), Mangahao (1924), Arapuni (1929) and Tuai (1929).

Environmental Opposition

Although increasing the use of renewable energy is seen as a good thing by most people in New Zealand (and indeed worldwide), the creation of these dams was not always seen favourable by all members of the public. [5] The first nationwide opposition to the building of a hydro electric plant was in the case of Lake Manapouri (Fig 1), where local environmentalists were against the raising of the lake by up to 30 metres merging in with nearby Lake Te Anau. In 1970, over 260,000 New Zealanders signed a petition in opposition to the raising of the dam. [6] The parties involved succumbed to the voices of the people, and the project was completed without raising the levels of the lake.

Attitudes Today

Throughout the early 2000's much of the further development of hydro-power was hindered by the public's perception of dams causing negative environmental externalities and social outcomes. The effect of large dams and the resultant lake can be considerable on the environment and local landowners. Although it is generally believed that New Zealand's large scale water resources have been almost exhausted, the concern over the impact of climate change may shape this view in the future and lead to a further development of dams in the future.

© Sam Perry. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Birchall, "New Zealand's Abandonment of the Carbon Neutral Public Service Programme," Clim. Policy 14, 525 (2014).

[2] I. G. Mason, S. C. Page, and A. G. Williamson, "A 100% Renewable Electricity Generation System for New Zealand Utilising Hydro, Wind, Geothermal and Biomass Resources," Energy Policy 38, 3973 (2010).

[3] T. P. Levi et al., "Life Cycle Issues of Power Plant in Australia and New Zealand," Mater. High Temp. 20, 85 (2014).

[4] N.-K. C. Nair and L. Zhang, "SmartGrid: Future Networks For New Zealand Power Systems Incorporating Distributed Generation," Energy Policy 37, 3418 (2009).

[5] D. van der Horst, "NIMBY or Not? Exploring the Relevance of Location and the Politics of Voiced Opinions in Renewable Energy Siting Controversies," Energy Policy 35, 2705 (2007).

[6] L. W. Wright, "Decision Making and the Logging Industry: An Example from New Zealand," Biol. Conserv. 18, 101 (1980).