[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

In 1924 the founders of Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board could not have imagined what their fledgling utility company would become. One hundred years on, Unison is a successful, respected specialist electricity group, with a footprint and reputation that extends far beyond Hawke’s Bay. 

Throughout its history Unison, under its various monikers, has undertaken amalgamations, acquisitions and divestments, and weathered earthquake, winter storms, floods, cyclones, and power shortages, as well as meeting the challenge of regulatory change, to emerge a vibrant entity, touching nearly household in the region. 

It all began back in 1912, the same year that saw the Titanic sink. Between 1912 and 1920, dozens of local power stations were commissioned throughout New Zealand. By 1920, there were 55 public power stations with a collective generating capacity of 45 megawatts. 

Following the Electric Power Boards Act 1918, Power Boards could produce, reticulate and sell power to those areas not supplied through 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. Adding to this, two freezing works consented to source their power from the Board. These commitments secured a significant power load, leading to the establishment of the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board (HBEPB) on 19 June 1924. 

BayBuzz caught up with Jason Larkin, Unison’s GM Commercial and Centralines to discuss the centenary, how things had changed and where the company was headed as it enters its second century. 

Speaking of the company’s history, Larkin says there are four distinct phases. 

“Getting power to the towns, electrifying industry, rural electrification, and supporting growth to the region. 

“Rural electrification was post-war, which made a big difference, increasing the productivity (sheep shearing became electrified for example) and improving the lives and wellbeing of rural communities. 

“More recently, it’s been about supporting the growth and improving lives and livelihoods in the region by being there to provide power for industry as it’s grown.”

Doing it all

In the first 70-odd years of its history, the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board was both a lines company – building the electricity network as Hawke’s Bay grew – and an electricity retailer. Right up until the 1990s it sold electrical appliances like stoves, to encourage consumers to make the leap to an electricity enabled home. It also held cooking demonstrations for the housewives of the day, with the first demonstration taking place in the 1920s. If an appliance needed repair, or an electric blanket needed testing, HBEPB could take care of that, too, with the board noting in its 50th anniversary publication that “the public has always appreciated the sound after-sales service provided by the Board.”

Allied to the retail section was the Consumer Service Department giving worthwhile advice to builders, architects and homeowners who wished to make maximum and efficient use of electricity. 

The Board was pretty self-sufficient. Its main depot held requisite stores and parts; it also had a vehicle repair depot, concrete pole factory, electrical fitters’ workshop and a carpenters’ shop. The 50th anniversary booklet notes (that in the period after WWII): “the Board is now adequately mechanised with over 100 units including cars, trucks, bulldozers, trench diggers and pole-hole borers”.

Community ownership

Throughout its history, Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board has been a publicly owned asset built by the people of Hawke’s Bay. The move to a trust ownership model was part of the overall electricity reforms of the 1990’s. These days Unison is owned by Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust (HBPCT), an arrangement not without controversy. 

HBPCT Chair Diana Kirton says the Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust is very proud to mark the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board. 

“Unison is one of the key infrastructure assets in Hawke’s Bay and continues this proud tradition of providing great value to Hawke’s Bay power consumers and the community in general.”

Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust receives an annual dividend from Unison which it then distributes directly to local power consumers. Since 1998 more than $250 million has been returned to power consumers via the dividend. 

Weathering the storms

Cyclone Gabrielle, the snow storm of 2016, the floods of 1974 and the 1931 earthquake. Our local electricity company has been there for it all, doing its best to minimise disruption and get people reconnected as soon as possible.

Reflecting on how our reliance on the power supply has increased over the years, Larkin says:

“When I was a child, a power cut was an adventure. You got out the candles and the playing cards. The economy didn’t stop, because most things could still be done. The telephone still worked. Now, when there’s no power people’s lives stop. You lose connectivity. The economy stops. We can’t buy anything if the EFTPOS system goes down. 

“It’s actually become more important in people’s lives, and the tolerance to any interruption is almost zero.”

Of the lessons learned from the cyclone, Larkin says that a lot of what was applied to Unison’s response came from earlier events.

“The importance of getting on the ground, engaging with communities at an early stage to understand their issues, and share our plan for restoring power.

“With Gabrielle we continue to learn and refine things. Our systems don’t actually look down to each customer, in an active sense.”

He explains that disconnecting and then reconnecting customers without the visibility that “last mile” technology enables makes reconnection quite a manual exercise.

“It’s probably the next place to invest in terms of data technology and systems. Now with electricity the technology is there, smart meters are there and adding in some other smart technology will mean that (in a technology and data driven way) we don’t leave any customers behind.”

In a future edition, BayBuzz will look into Unison’s recovery and future resilience progress in detail.

100 birthday celebrations

Unison has always had a strong community focus. Owned by locals, employing locals, and supplying local households and businesses, Unison is one of a select group of companies that is of daily service to the people of Hawke’s Bay. It is inextricably connected to the region; no growth or development can take place without the essential electricity network infrastructure that Unison provides.

Azra Wenzlick Electrix Juliet Fordyce Natasha Goodall Emily Flynn all Unison Laisa Pickering Electrix Serah Russell Unison

Unison is inviting the Hawke’s Bay public to get involved and celebrate with them, and especially to share memories, photos, mementos and any items such as old tools, uniforms, or safety gear. Also planned is a special exhibition in June at the Faraday Museum in Napier. 

The exhibit promises to be fully interactive, telling the story of Unison and its predecessors, the growth and development of the company, and celebrating key milestones in Unison’s history.

As to the feeling within Unison as the centenary approaches, Larkin says:

“I think people are starting to warm up and get excited about it. There’s interest, particularly from staff who have been here longer, and amongst staff who have left, who want to share some of that history and make sure it’s not lost.

“There’s a real opportunity, not just for existing staff, but for the whole community to reflect and share their stories, whether they worked for Unison or they were touched by the work Unison did,” says Larkin.

A sustainable energy future 

Planners haven’t always gotten it right. The company’s 50th Anniversary report predicted, “It seems inevitable that we will be generating power from atomic sources in the late 1980s, despite some opposition at present.” Change happens!

Today, Unison’s vision is to lead a sustainable energy future that supports the changing energy needs of consumers. 

And change they have, to include electric vehicles, solar panels, heat pumps, more home appliances than ever, and internet-of-things enabled appliances. In 1947 the average annual demand of domestic consumers was one 1,000kWh, in 1974 it was 3,000 kWh, and today it’s around 7,000 kWh. The big loads in the average home remain the hot water cylinder and oven.

Unison’s CEO is Jaun Park, who has spent his entire career in the electricity sector. He was appointed to the top job last year, after 17 years with the company.

Since his appointment he has been refining Unison’s vision and strategy to create sustainable value for its customers and shareholders. Unison Group is set to play a leading role in decarbonisation, while delivering for its consumers and shareholders, he says.

“The future is electric and our growth strategy over the last decade has reflected that, acquiring complementary businesses to ensure we are strongly positioned to leverage the opportunities and tackle the challenges associated with electrification.

“As we step into the future it’s important we harness advancements in technology to drive efficiency and better connect with our customers and continue nurturing strong and enduring relationships – but no strategy can be developed or delivered without people. 

“Many have played a part in our history and I want to extend a huge thank you to our consumers, our communities and our employees, past and present, for their support and contributions over the last century. 

“I’m looking forward to commemorating this historical milestone with our team and the community in June,” says Park.

For those interested in learning more about HBEPB history check out Unison’s website, the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank, and local libraries. To learn more about Unison’s 100th celebrations of the Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board, go to www.unison.co.nz 


• 1,095 employees globally, with more than 90 offshore

• 79% male staff: 21% female (Unison Networks and Unison Contracting)

• Presence in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia

• FY23 Earnings before interest and tax $58m (72% from regulated sources, 28% unregulated)

• Network assets in Hawke’s Bay, Taupō, Rotorua

• Nearly 10,000km of network

• More than 116,000 ICPs across three networks

• 66,137 power poles

• More than 500 vehicles 

• 23 employees in Unison/Unison Contracting with more than 25 years service

• Current longest serving employee – 48 years service

• Community sponsorships supporting wellbeing, growth and development in Unison’s regions.


1920s Hawke’s Bay Electric Power Board formed, linemen were paid 19 cents per hour. Redclyffe substation comes into service. Takes over Taradale Town Board electricity supply.

1930s Earthquake hits Power Board hard, HBEPB takes over Hastings and Havelock North reticulation. New HBEPB headquarters established in Hastings.

1940s WW2 impacts supply chain, limits capital works and slows rural reticulation plans. Demand for power outstrips supply.

1950s New Fernhill substation caters for growth, supplies all of Hastings. Steam from Awatoto fertiliser works used to produce electricity for HBEPB. Power restrictions continue. Upgrades to receive supply at 33 kV commence. Hastings Gas Company formed. 

1960s Country reticulation completed. First housing subdivision with high tension overhead /low tension underground completed. Hydro scheme considered for the Ngaruroro River. Revenue reaches $4.8m in 1969.

1990s Acquires Bay City Power from Napier City Council. New regulation creates commercial entities out of power boards. HBEPB becomes Hawke’s Bay Power, owned by Hawke’s Bay Power Consumers’ Trust. Retail electricity business sold to Contact Energy, leaving only the network business, renamed as Hawke’s Bay Network.

2000s Expands to Taupō and Rotorua acquiring electricity distribution assets from United Networks and Vector. Name change to Unison Networks. Establishes Unison Fibre, buys transformer manufacturer ETEL.

2010s Creates separate business for contracting services. First EV charging stations. Unison Contracting supports Aurora Energy in Dunedin. Acquires RPS Switchgear.

2020s Acquires high-voltage electrical contracting specialist PBA, sells Unison Fibre.


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1 Comment

  1. Congratulations Unison on serving Hawks Bay for 100 years. The HBPB Trust is an amazing vision that has benefited every household across our region, long may it continue, a Truly People s Company

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