North Point Power Station
IDJ: Present day residents of Hong Kong can barely envisage that a major electricity generating power station once dominated the waterfront in the bustling North Point district of Hong Kong island. Today all people see from the harbour is a wall of high-rise residential buildings rising up to the hilltops.
However, there are clues are in surviving street names in the area, Electric Road, Power Street, Oil Street, Shell (Oil) Street etc.
The Hong Kong Electric Company’s first power station was in Wanchai close to the needs of its customers at the beginning of the 20th century. With the increasing popularity of electricity as a new form of clean energy, a modern power station was required that advanced beyond the use of noisy reciprocating steam engines and diesel engines generating electricity.
The ‘Great War’ in Europe (World-War-One) held back plans to modernise, but it did give time to consolidate new ideas and technologies into a new power station. A land/seabed site was purchased from the government far from the city at North Point that provided a large area with ample access to seawater for condensing steam from the new technology steam turbines. This is necessary so the ultra-pure condensate can be reused in the coal-fired boilers producing steam for these much more powerful and reliable machines. The land site also provided sufficient space for coal fuel storage and its unloading from junks.
In 1919, North Point power station was generating electricity using two steam turbines and alternators acquired from a most unlikely location, Dawson City, Yukon Territory in Canada. This equipment was a much-prized purchase after WW1 as it was virtually unused, having been superseded by abundant and cheap hydro-electricity generation in a landscape with plenty of fast flowing water.
By 1920, North Point and the Wanchai power station were both providing electricity to customers on the island. Throughout the 1920s, North Point power station’s generating capacity increased in leaps and bounds as new customers where added. Within 10 years it had increased from 3,000 to 28,000 kilowatts.
In 1932, the company installed a 12,500-kilowatt Brush-Ljungstromsteam-turbine generator regarded as the most efficient machine on the station due to its operating parameters at higher steam pressures and temperatures. The resulting efficiencies drove down coal consumption and costs. This machine was radically different in design to the conventional steam turbines in use on the station.
North Point power station had been started on a reclamation jutting out into the sea, but its subsequent land extension was peculiar in Hong Kong circumstances in that it was extended inland instead of seaward. When the government blasted out hillsides further inland to create Kings Road, (from today’s Fortress Hill/Braemar Hill), trams from Causeway Bay to Shaukiwan ran past the power station on what is the present Electric Road. When the company needed more land, they paid part of the costs of relocating the tramlines from Electric Road over to King’s Road, down which they continue to run.The company then had a King’s Road frontage and were able to buy and close off a section of Electric Road which ran through their property. This became the station’s storage yard, and was walled in.
The most important land extension, however, was that concerned with a decision taken during the Seamen’s Strike of 1922, when female coal coolies under duress, failed to appear for work. The company not wanting to be held to ransom in future when critical electricity supplies were involved had to explore more efficient ways of off-loading coal from mid-stream cargo ships to junks, from junks by ladder and planks to shore, and finally to storage bunkers.
It was a long and frustrating land negotiation which took fourteen years to achieve. An example of town-planners being oblivious to the needs of strategic installations. It was caused mainly by the fact that the government, with urban development gradually moving out to North Point, was determined that it had to be properly planned, unlike earlier urban developments on the Island. However, what the company desperately needed was its own wharf. Because of the existing and very essential cooling sea-water intakes and outlets required by the steam-turbines condensing equipment, a wharf could not be constructed immediately seaward of the power station. It was a question of building either to the right or left, east or west. To the west was the government, fully prepared to be accommodating, but planning carefully, and frequently changing its mind. To the east was seabed and a shorefront lot in private ownership, but the owner had died, and the inheritance was being difficult to resolve. Having negotiated endlessly westward with government, the company finally decided to move east, after purchasing the private lot.
In 1934, worst year of the world-wide business slump, the company’s directors gave orders for the blasting and levelling of mounds on the land side of the new lot to begin, and the seafront wall to be clad in concrete to a marine depth of thirty feet. The wharf was partly operational the following year, and fully the next, was named Mackie’s Wharf, in honour of Charles Mackie of consultants Gibb, Livingston. It was the only place on the Hongkong island waterfront at which an ocean-going ship could tie up alongside, except for Taikoo docks. The era of the coal junks ended with it. However, the female coal coolies remained. With many complex movements required to move coal within the power station, they proved themselves so quick and efficient that no machinery available at that time could supplant them.
The power station and its staff suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation of 1941-45. This period and the fierce battle for the power station has been covered more than adequately by many others in their books about the war in the colony.The end of hostilities found the power station effectively wrecked with concealed sabotage designed to create further damage if machinery was operated. It was not capable of generating electricity.
However, it was found that the Japanese had laid an under-sea interconnecting cable from Taikoo dockyard to Kowloon enabling some electricity to be transferred from the China Light and Power Company’s Hok Un power station on the opposite side of the harbour. This facility was in the process of resurrection by teams of liberating Royal Navy and Royal Air Force engineers alongside surviving staff from that power station. Limited electricity supplies could now reach the island.
Restoring North Point power station back to service was to be a long task, held back by the lack of any replacement parts from suppliers in war ravaged UK and Europe. By the inherent ability of practical engineers, some of the pre-war generating equipment was restored to a semblance of working order while showing external “battle scars” from the conflict.
During the occupation, the Japanese had apparently used each of the steam turbines in turn, running them until they broke down and then moving on to the next. The only one they had not used was the Brush-Ljungstrom machine which with its unusual design had probably baffled them. The Chinese turbine drivers had found it a very difficult machine to handle. On close inspection it was found to have been subtly sabotaged, but this was detected before attempts were made to run it.
To enable a power station to generate electricity a substantial amount of it is first required to start pumps running, boiler fans working, and numerous other essential auxiliaries functioning. To achieve this state a Royal Navy submarine was brought alongside to transfer initial electrical power from its propulsion systems.After clearing out damage and rubble, the power station was providing limited electricity supplies to the public by 4 October 1945.
The second world war had totally curtailed manufacturing in the UK of anything other than armaments, compounded by disruption by the new socialist government nationalising the coal, steel and electricity industries. Any capacity to manufacture power station equipment was diverted into rebuilding the UK’s war-ravaged power systems. Hong Kong, a small far-away colony was not a great priority.
North Point power station soldiered on by rebuilding and cannibalising equipment to keep supplies of electricity flowing. Luckily, very many of the British and Chinese engineers had come from seagoing engine-room and ship repair backgrounds and experience, so were well-versed in working on complex machinery and electrical systems. Although replacement boilers and major spare parts had been ordered by January 1946, nothing substantial reached the colony for many months or even years in some cases. A substantial part of a power station’s equipment was built to order and not available “off-the shelf.”
In 1955, a contract was signed with the English Electric Company to build an entirely new power station alongside the existing one. Coal was to be mainly dispensed with, and heavy fuel oil became the primary fuel used to fire the steam boilers and so simplifying fuel handling. The station started generating late in 1958, with the first of five 30,000 kilowatt “sets” (steam turbine & electrical generator). Known as ‘B’ Station, when completed it brought total capacity to 195,000 kilowatts. Immediately after, steps were taken to build ‘C’ station adjacent to the original one. This station was again from the English Electric Company and construction started in 1965 to house two 60,000 kilowatt “sets” filling this now congested site.
By this time North Point had become one of the most densely populated districts on Hong Kong island. High-rise apartment blocks were towering over and crowding in on the power station buildings with many exceeding the height of its chimneys. Although smoke and noise mitigation was an important issue in the power station’s operations, it could not be eliminated entirely. The time had come once again to move the generating facilities elsewhere.
A search commenced for a new site on the south of the island which was finalised to be at the unpopulated end of Ap Lei Chau island near Aberdeen. The North Point power station continued operating until 1973 as a ‘stand-by’ facility. It was subsequently demolished by 1978 with the site subsumed into North Point district’s City Garden residential estates infrastructure. In 1956, the government took back the power station’s land that had cut Electric Road and had resurrected it as a through road once again. A reminder to the curious that a power station had once been in the area.
Further reading: A Mountain of Light by Austin Coates, Heinemann, 1977
Images from various sources mostly unknown, from the internet. IDJ has sent a number of images of the power station including those shown above. The complete set will shortly be added to the website and linked in related Indhhk articles below.
This article was first posted on 8th October 2020.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Ap Lei Chau Power Station
- The Hong Kong Electric Company – 1889 to the decommissioning of Ap Lei Chau Power station in 1989
- The Hongkong Electric Company Ltd – Early History – 1889 to c1908
- Hong Kong Electric – pioneer of mechanised tunnelling in 1989
- Francis Richard Marsh – General Manager of the Hong Kong Electric Company 1921-
- Gibb, Livingston & Company Ltd, established in HK 1841, shipping lines and insurance