Macquarie University
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The electrification of the Sydney energy system, 1881-1986

posted on 2022-03-28, 11:57 authored by George Wilkenfeld
All technological systems require energy. The concentration of human population and economic activity in cities has relied on the development of urban energy systems, which bring energy to the city and distribute it to points of end use within it. Over the past century, electro-technology has come to dominate urban energy systems throughout the developed world. This process has been imperfectly documented and analysed, because the relationships between electricity and the energy service markets and local political frameworks within which each instance of urban electrificaiton has taken place have generally been neglected. -- This thesis presents electrification as an historical change in the urban energy system. It identifies the most important influences on urban energy demand and on the organisation of energy supply, and traces their interaction before the introduction of electro-technology, then from the beginning of electrification in the 1880s to its completion in the 1980s. -- Urban electrification is best observed and understood by following its course within a single city. Sydney is well suited to such an analysis, since it is highly electrified and encompasses within its two hundred year history all the major energy technologies of the past millenium. During the first century of its existence, it developed distinctively urban markets for transportation, street lighting, commercial, industrial and residential energy services. These were revolutionised by steam and by gas, the first specifically urban energy technology. -- The thesis examines how each energy form in turn gained a foothold in the Sydney energy system, diffused through it and spread beyond it to the rest of the state of New South Wales. It analyses long term trends in each of the various urban energy markets, and draws parallels in the pattern of succession of supply technologies. It demonstrates that these patterns were repeated with the introduction of electricity and, in the 1970s, by its emerging successors. -- During Sydney's second century each of its energy markets was electrified in turn, while its separate electricity supply systems coalesced into a unified grid serving the entire metropolis, and extending later into the rest of the state. Largely as a result of political circumstances in the 1880s, when electric lighting was first introduced, the municipal electricity supply organisations acquired considerable influence and autonomy, and resisted the later attempts of state governments to co-ordinate their development. --The electrification of the Sydney and NSW energy systems had largely run its course by the late 1970s. Electricity supply had exhausted the economies of scale and technological development which had given it an advantage over other fuels. It had saturated the urban energy markets, and was facing new competitors in the form of natural gas and more efficient utilisation technologies. These changes in the energy system exacerbated the inherent problems in the organisation of electricity supply, which was predicated on unlimited growth and slow to adapt to the end of electrification.


Table of Contents

Electrification: an historical process -- A prehistory of electrification: the Sydney energy system to1881 -- Slow dawn of the electric light, 1881-1904 -- The momentum of growth, 1904-1932 -- The state takes charge, 1932-1950 -- Triumph of the grid, 1950-1986 -- The limits to electrification.


Bibliography: leaves 360-379

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Centre for Environmental and Urban Studies

Department, Centre or School

Centre for Environmental and Urban Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Peter Spearitt

Additional Supervisor 1

Bob Fagan


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright George Wilkenfeld 1989.




New South Wales


[13], 379 leaves ill., maps

Former Identifiers

mq:4752 1293880