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Unison's history

Unison's history

With 100 years in the constantly evolving and regulated electricity industry, the face of Unison has changed many times from our formation as the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board in 1924.

Since our establishment, we have continued to build and maintain the electricity network servicing our regions of Hawke’s Bay, Taupō and Rotorua, while expanding to consist of a specialist group of companies delivering world-class electricity solutions.

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Join us as we trace our history through from the early days of electricity generation.

The beginning

In the very early days of electricity generation, the generation and supply of power was managed by Councils or Municipal departments. Our home town of Hastings first enjoyed the benefits of an electricity network in 1912, following the Hastings Borough Council’s construction of Power House in Eastbourne Street.

Following the Electric Power Boards Act 1918, the opportunity arose for Power Boards to produce, reticulate and sell power to those areas not supplied through the local government.

In 1923, a committee backed by Hawke’s Bay County initiated the formation of a Power Board to manage electricity distribution across the county. Both Napier and Hastings, self-sufficient in power generation for a decade, indicated they were ready to buy from the Board. The same was true for Havelock North Town Board and Taradale, which decided to align its interests with the Board. Adding to this, two freezing works consented to source their power from the Board too. These commitments secured a significant power load, leading to the establishment of the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board (HBEPB) on 19 June 1924. Following that, on 27 September 1924 the first meeting of the HBEPB was held.

The HBEPB was formed to essentially provide electricity to the rural areas of the Hawke’s Bay County, as the urban areas of Napier, Taradale, Hastings and Havelock North already had their own supplies from their governing bodies.

The growth of electricity supply

1920s

The HBEPB continued to grow its geographical foot print, purchasing the reticulation operations for town centres from the local governing body. The first to be taken over was Taradale in 1925, supplied by the Taradale Town Board.

By February 1927, the construction of supply to Pakowhai and Mangateretere was completed – the first rural areas to be reticulated.

Three months later, the HBEPB purchased its first vehicle, buying a Ford half-ton truck for $318 - ‘for the use of the Foreman’ - who would have been earning around 19 cents an hour.

1930s

It’s referred to as the Napier Earthquake, however the 7.8 quake that hit in 1931 caused widespread devastation across the entire Hawke's Bay region. Normally the region’s power was received from the government’s hydro-electric high tension mains but the transformers of both the Government and the HBEPB were toppled during the earthquake and took many weeks to reinstate. During the midst of the crisis only those who were doing official work (and for free) received permission from the Citizens Committee to have power restored to their premises. To ensure the safety and supply of power to homes, the HBEPB staff (supplemented by skilled labour) removed all the fuses on the poles and hung them from the cross arms with a piece of yarn. As the lines were inspected and deemed safe, the fuses were replaced.

Following the reticulation of Taradale was the reticulation of Hastings on 1 October 1934. Two years later in 1936, the HBEPB also purchased the electrical plant and reticulation of the Havelock North Town Board. This continued expansion also meant the HBEPB required a larger depot, and a new site was purchased in Heretaunga Street East, and a new headquarters erected.

1950s

With all power for the region coming from a single point of supply at Redclyffe, by the early 1950’s growth in demand for electricity required the Government to build a second point of 20,000kVA supply at Fernhill to meet the increasing electricity needs of customers.

1960s

With continued growth came continued expansion, and in 1961 the field operations were moved to Parkvale, and a major extension added to the Heretaunga Street headquarters. A new supervisory control system was installed in 1966, enabling more sophisticated control of "load patterns". By the late 1960s, demand for new connections had slowed, but there was increasing demand for underground installations in residential areas, and the HBEPB shifted focus from construction of new connections to the undergrounding of existing overhead supplies within the central town areas.

1980s

Cyclone Bola hit the Hawke’s Bay region hard on 7 March 1988. The slips on farms took power poles with them, and the heavy rain caused severe flooding. HBEPB staff used waders (and in some cases row boats) to access substations so that they could do the work required to maintain the power supply.

1990s

The 1990s was the period of most significant organisational change for the HBEPB. The first change came in November 1991 when the HBEPB finally purchased the electricity business, Bay City Power, operated by the Napier City Council.

The Energy Companies Act 1992 allowed for the corporatisation of the Electricity Boards, changing the ownership to one of shareholdings, with the option of vesting the shares into Trust ownership a most popular choice around New Zealand.

For the HBEPB, the Act resulted in the formation of Hawke’s Bay Power Distribution Limited and its subsidiary company, Hawke’s Bay Power Limited, both trading as Hawke’s Bay Power on 20 May 1993. All shares were vested in the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust (refer Trust Ownership section), ensuring continued “consumer ownership” of the Company and its distribution network.

But the structure of Hawke’s Bay Power was to change again, following the Electricity Industry Reform Act 1998. This Act required that one company could no longer both distribute and retail electricity, and so on 30 September 1998, the retail business of the Company was sold to Contact Energy Ltd. The name of the Company was subsequently changed to Hawke’s Bay Network Limited in January 1999.

2000s

On 1 October 2002, Hawke’s Bay Network Limited commenced a management services contract with electricity lines company Centralines Limited, based in Central Hawke’s Bay at Waipukurau. One month after taking on the Centralines management contract, Hawke’s Bay Network also acquired the Taupō and Rotorua electricity distribution assets of United Networks Limited and Vector Limited.

Unison Networks Limited (trading as Unison) came into being on 17 April 2003, when the Company changed its name. Unison was now the fourth largest electricity lines company in New Zealand.

The Company underwent a restructure in 2007, separating out its contracting services under a new subsidiary, Unison Contracting Services Limited (UCSL).

In 2009, Unison branched out into fibre, with the establishment of subsidiary Unison Fibre Limited (trading as UnisonFibre). Fibre technology was to form the communications backbone for the Company’s vision of a ‘Smart Network’, and ultimately allowing the company to enter into the wholesale fibre market.

In the same year, Unison also purchased ETEL - New Zealand’s largest transformer manufacturing company, specialising in the design and manufacture of distribution transformers.

2010s

In 2010, Unison Networks Limited remained UCSL's number one customer and after the addition of vegetation and civil services to its portfolio, the subsidiary got its own brand.

Unison launched the first of its public fast-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) in the Hastings CBD in 2016, with a further three installed across Napier, Taupō and Rotorua following that year. The first Unison "Power Park" was installed in partnership with the Hastings District Council, which provided a space for the charging station in its Queen Street West public car park.

Also in 2016, UCSL was selected to partner with Aurora Energy to undertake their Fast Track Pole Programme on their electricity network in Dunedin and upon completion of their initial programme in December 2017, UCSL was invited to remain in the area to assist Aurora Energy with other essential work. UCSL entered into an agreement with Aurora Energy to help deliver its network programme from 1 April 2019. This agreement was extended in 2022 through to March 2024.

The Unison Group continued to grow in 2019, acquiring RPS Switchgear, an electrical switchgear business based in Wellington.

2020s

When Windsor Substation's 11kV switchboard in Hastings reached the end of its life, Unison identified the opportunity to pilot a new, innovative and sustainable substation. Operational from 1 January 2022, the first of its kind in New Zealand, Windsor Substation was designed and built in a way that reduces our carbon footprint and uses materials that are kind on the environment and people. In July 2022, Windsor Substation was named the winner of the Low Carbon Future Award at the New Zealand Energy Excellence Awards.

In 2022, Unison acquired high-voltage electrical contracting industry leader PBA Limited, including its subsidiaries PBA Consulting and PBA Australia. PBA is located throughout New Zealand and Australia.

Unison Group subsidiary, PBA Limited acquired leading energy supply services company Magnetic Power Services (Magnetic) in 2023. Based in Australia, Magnetic employs industry specialists and has a reputation as quality providers of high and low voltage asset construction and engineering and design services.

After a fantastic 15-year journey of building Unison Fibre Limited, the subsidiary of Unison was sold to leading Central North Island fibre network provider, Tuatahi First Fibre on 31 January 2024.

On 19 June 2024, Unison celebrated 100 years of powering communities since its founding as the Hawke's Bay Electric Power Board on 19 June 1924.

Trust ownership

Unison is 100% owned by the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust (HBPCT).

HBPCT was formed in 1993 and is an elected body which acts on behalf of the consumer-owners of Unison. As a 100% consumer-owned company, the consumers in the Hawke’s Bay network region are the beneficial owners of the company. The consumer-owners elect the Trustees every three years.

The HBPCT is governed by a Trust Deed, which sets out in detail the responsibilities and duties of the Trust and the Trustees.