Waddamana: Australia’s first hydro scheme

‘Those guys are dam crazy’ – the story of Australia’s first hydro scheme

Our parent company Hydro Tasmania have been in the business of crazy smart ideas for more than 100 years – and it all started at sleepy little spot called Waddamana (population 4).

In the heart of Tasmania, in the early 1900s, life was pretty quiet. There were hills, lakes, and rain and not a lot of anything else, which left quite a lot of time to think. And two clever guys who really made the most of this thinking time were Professor Alexander McCauley and Harold Bisdee.

McCauley & Bisdee may not be household names but this duo should be mentioned alongside Burke & Wills, Kath & Kim or Farnsy & Barnsey – as Aussie legends.

One day while out surveying the landscape, McCauley & Bisdee looked at a big muddy hill and saw perfection – ideal conditions for one of the most wildly ambitious schemes Australia had ever seen.

Waddamana Hill
Back then, muddy hills looked much like our modern muddy hills. Tasmanian Archives: AA193/1/2567

There in the rugged Central Highlands of Tasmania (more than two days ride from Hobart and a decent pub meal) this little-known Aussie duo identified an ideal spot for Australia’s very first hydro power scheme.

And why not! After all, maybe it wasn’t so crazy... why shouldn’t a few clever Tasmanians do just as well as the engineers half a world-away who harnessed Niagara Falls a few years earlier?

Their plans would use cutting edge technology (for the 1910s) and come together at a fraction of the cost. ‘Nature has practically made us a present of the whole scheme,’ McCauley wrote to the local papers – and he was right.

The laborious construction began soon after. With teams of men working by hand with picks, shovels, and crowbars to excavate the canals that would channel the water of The Great Lake to Waddamana. It was slow going, slippery and cold (wretched conditions for building timber pipes into a steep slope) but they stuck at it. I bet they had one of those signs up “You don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps”.

Labourers lived in tents and faced one of the nastiest winters on record. In fact, conditions at Waddamana got so bad that work ground to a halt. Was the plan actually too bonkers to succeed? Almost! The original group of investors went bankrupt, and the project was rescued by the Tasmanian government who took over in 1914 – forming The Hydro Electric Department.

Waddamana power station went on to open in 1916 – and The Hydro Electric Department (Now Hydro Tasmania) has been generating clean energy for homes and businesses ever since.

It turned out to be a plan so gutsy (if a little crazy) it not only worked but skip forward to the present day and Hydro Tasmania is the largest generator of renewable energy in Australia. They operate a network of 30 hydropower stations and two hybrid energy systems (on the Bass Strait Islands) that together make enough clean energy to power 1.4 million homes every year. They also have more water under management than anyone else in Australia.

While the technology might look a bit different, the spirit is the same. The hydro engineers are out there every day coming up with their crazy-smart ideas.

Right now they’re working on adapting existing hydro power stations to be future-ready and new exciting tech like pumped hydro. Pumped hydro works by pumping water uphill when there’s excess electricity available in the grid and then running it downhill to generate more power when it’s needed. Effectively turning existing dams into huge (rechargeable) batteries. A stable supply of renewables like this means Australia won’t have to rely as much on fossil fuels – it's brilliant really – and exactly the kind of bold thinking we need to set us up for the renewably powered future the world is counting on.

And who’d have thought it would all begin in a sleepy town with two blokes deciding, against all advice, that a muddy hill in the middle-of-nowhere was the perfect spot for a power station.

Keen for a bit more hydro history?

Dive into this mini documentary about the pioneers who built Waddamana.

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