Powering inner Melbourne: the forgotten Municipal Electricity Undertakings

Have you ever looked up at a power pole in Melbourne and seen one of these warning signs? They are quite easy to see on older electricity poles that carry high voltage power lines through the streets.

Warning sign on a Melbourne power pole - "DANGER: S.E.C. H.V"

So what do all those letters mean?

  • H.V. stands for High Voltage (duh!);
  • S.E.C. stands for State Electricity Commission.

The State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) name should ring a bell for many in my audience: until the 1990s they were the monopoly electricity utility in the state of Victoria; operating power stations, maintaining power lines, and sending everyone a power bill every three months.

However, in the streets of Footscray there are some power poles with a slightly different looking sign. So who is this “F.C.C.”? To find out we need to go back to 1896…

Warning sign on a Footscray power pole - "DANGER: F.C.C. H.V"

Electricity generation in Victoria started out with a wide array of private companies moving into the emerging market of electric light and power. To regulate these companies in 1896 the first Electric Light and Power Act was introduced, and required these companies to obtain an Order-in-Council (O-I-C) to distribute electricity. The Act also said:

  • Existing Council or company electricity supply undertakings were automatically entitled to obtain an O-I-C,
  • Local Councils were able to take out non time limited O-I-Cs for their areas and could contract out construction and/or operation to other parties,
  • Non local government bodies could only obtain O-I-Cs for public supply with the consent of the relevant local Council(s) for no more than 30 years, with the assets being able to be purchased by the Council(s) at the end of that time.

A number of local councils took up the option of taking out an O-I-Cs to operate which became known as Municipal Electricity Undertakings (MEUs), managing electricity distribution and retailing to their ratepayers. The City of Melbourne was the first MEU in 1897, with a key part of their system being the Spencer Street Power Station which supplied the inner city with electricity until the 1960s.

Spencer Street Power Station

It took 13 years for the next MEU was established, by the City of Footscray in 1910, but by 1915 the number of MEUs had reached 11. The complete list of councils is as follows:

  • City of Melbourne (1897)
  • City of Footscray (1910)
  • City of Brunswick (1912)
  • City of Box Hill (1912)
  • City of Port Melbourne (1912)
  • City of Preston (1912)
  • City of Northcote (1913)
  • City of Heidelberg (1914)
  • City of Coburg (1914)
  • City of Doncaster & Templestowe (1914)
  • City of Williamstown (1915)

At least that answers who the previously mentioned F.C.C. is – the Footscray City Council.

The other councils to set up MEUs took a different approach to the City of Melbourne, deciding against the expense of setting up their own power stations, and instead purchased electricity in bulk from one of the private companies that already operated a power station. These private companies also operated their own distribution and retail networks in other areas of Melbourne, and in many cases they were also responsible for some of Melbourne’s first electric tramways.

After the early burst of MEU establishments in inner Melbourne, no other councils joined the club, possibly due to a lack of inner-city residents still to be served. The supply of electricity to the rest of state had to wait until the establishment of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria by the government in 1920. Their mission was as follows:

  • to inquire into and report to the Government on the measures which should be taken to achieve the ultimate co-ordination and amalgamation of all electrical undertakings in Victoria,
  • to supply electricity in bulk to any statutory corporation or undertaking such as municipalities,
  • to supply electricity to any person outside any area in which there is an existing undertaking and to Government departments and institutions.

These powers marked the end of the privately owned electricity undertakings, these being acquired by the SECV between 1922 and 1934. For the existing MEUs the only change was their bulk supplier of electricity, but the changes also prevented the formation of any new MEUs – the SECV would supply all other consumers.

This division of responsibilities with MEUs fed by bulk power from the SECV lasted into the 1990s – the JA Zone substation in inner Melbourne was one example of the schism, where the SECV operated the input transformers and switchgear from one control panel, while the Melbourne City Council Electrical Supply Department (MCCESD) managed the output side from a second panel down the hallway.

Caged in: the 66 kV busbars are just above!

Eventually accounting for around 15 per cent of the state’s electricity supply, the end of the MEU came in 1994 when the Kennett government launched an extensive reform of the Victorian electricity industry. These changes saw the creation of the 5 electricity distribution companies based on geographic regions, taking over from the monolithic SECV and the 11 MEUs in inner Melbourne.

For their part in the reforms, each of the metropolitan councils entered into an MEU Transfer Agreement with the State of Victoria, and received a share of the profits from the privatisation of the new distribution companies.

Distribution of the funds was slightly complicated by the local government amalgamations carried out a few years before, as the 11 MEUs were now owned by 9 metropolitan councils – the new council LGA names along the left, the old council names in brackets, and the matching distribution company names along the top. Values are in millions of $.

Council CitiPower Solaris (Jemena) United Energy Total
Melbourne
(Melbourne)
206.9 - - 206.9
Darebin
(Northcote, Preston)
26.5 45.7 - 72.2
Whitehorse
(Box Hill)
- - 62 62
Moreland
(Brunswick, Coburg)
26.1 24.8 - 50.9
Maribyrnong
(Footscray)
- 45.5 - 45.5
Manningham
(Doncaster & Templestowe)
- - 33 33
Banyule
(Heidelberg)
- 30.4 - 30.4
Port Phillip
(Port Melbourne)
18.1 - - 18.1
Hobsons Bay
(Williamstown)
- 13.6 - 13.6
Total 277.6 160 95 532.6

The transfer agreements were signed in September 1994 and the proceeds were paid to councils between September 1995 and February 1996, this marking the end of Melbourne’s councils involvement in the Victorian electricity industry.

Further reading

The full list of Orders-In-Council that established MEUs are as follows, taken from the previously mentioned 1961 Government Gazette:

Municipality O-I-C Date
City of Melbourne No. 3-1897 September 6, 1897
City of Footscray No. 48-1910 December 21, 1910
City of Brunswick No. 73-1912 April 30, 1912
City of Nunawading No. 77-1912 June 20, 1912
City of Preston No. 68-1912 October 7, 1912
City of Port Melbourne No. 82-1912 October 7, 1912
City of Northcote No. 80-1913 January 13, 1913
City of Heidelberg No. 100-1914 June 22, 1914
City of Coburg No. 105-1914 November 2, 1914
City of Doncaster & Templestowe No. 108-1914 December 30, 1914
City of Williamstown No. 111-1915 September 14, 1915
City of Doncaster & Templestowe No. 119-1915 November 30, 1915
City of Footscray (Werribee) No. 131-1917 January 8, 1918
City of Footscray (Braybrook) No. 136-1918 May 2, 1918
City of Doncaster & Templestowe No. 149-1920 August 10, 1920
City of Footscray (South Kingsville) No. 275-1952 June 24, 1952
City of Williamstown (West Newport) No. 278-1953 February 24, 1953
City of Box Hill (Burwood) No. 279-1953 May 12, 1953
City of Footscray (Kingsville Area) No. 301-1957 April 2, 1957
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10 Responses to “Powering inner Melbourne: the forgotten Municipal Electricity Undertakings”

  1. Marcus Wong says:

    And for an update, around Footscray there are a number of substations still bearing the “Footscray City Council Electricity Supply Department” name.

    Footscray City Council Electricity Supply Department

    Footscray City Council Electricity Supply Department

  2. Dimitrios says:

    Good day Marcus.

    Your article above is very interesting and informative. You obviously know a lot about electricity and its history, so I’m wondering if you know the location of electricity substations in and around Footscray, those old brick ones that are usually in the Art deco style and other architectural styles. I’m doing a photo journal of all the ones I can find. Any thoughts? I have found quite a few in Brunswick, Coburg, East Melbourne, Clifton Hill and Parkville, but I’m not too familiar with the West side of Town.

    Regards.

    Dimitrios

  3. Dimitrios says:

    Thanks Marcus.
    I’ll let you know when my photo-journal is done. Some of the substations are quite interesting in their design and architectural features. There’s more to them than meets the eye.

    Dimitrios

  4. [...] More about the Melbourne City Council Electrical Supply Department in an earlier post of mine [...]

  5. [...] 1994 residents of the City of Melbourne and ten other municipalities bought their electricity from the local council, not a power [...]

  6. [...] Electricity Commission of Victoria. Responsible for the electricity supply to almost of Victoria (more about the sole exception), back in the early 1980s the SECV was in the middle of building the massive Loy Yang power station [...]

  7. Hi Marcus
    Just today I was wondering about the arrangements under which Port Melbourne supplied its own electricity. Your article is immensely helpful. Thanks for it.
    Since you also investigate/document industrial/technical things that may disappear, I would like to draw your attention to the Symex (former Kitchens Factory) in Ingles St, Port Melbourne which has been sold and will likely be redeveloped in the future.
    Janet

  8. Hi Marcus,

    I’m writing a novel and one of the plotlines calls for an abandonned substation in the Collins street area and I wondered if you could help with a location. The novel is for middle school aged childeren and has a working title of Toby Farrier and the secret of the gold fountain pen. Any help you can ofer will be appreciated.

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