Built at a cost of £8650, the Power Station was opened by the Electric Lighting and Traction Co. in 1901. Much of the original generating halls behind the Grenfell Street office block remain.
The building, which faces Grenfell Street, was erected in 1912-13 as offices to replace a 1901 single-storey office block. This upgrading demonstrated the development, increased use and popularity of the new technology. The ownership of the power station also reflects the changes from private to public ownership of electricity during the 20th century.
As early as 1856 the new superintendent of telegraphs, Charles Todd, offered to establish electric street lighting in Adelaide, even though he thought gas was cheaper. However, more than 40 years passed before electricity was set up on a large scale from a central source. Until 1899 various privately owned plants around the city generated electricity for shops, theatres and hotels. There were novel displays of the new technology, such as the experimental trial of electric light from the top of the Post Office tower in 1881.
In 1882 the South Australian Electric Light Company installed the first lighting in commercial premises at Kither’s large retail butcher shop in Rundle Street (see Commonwealth Savings Bank).
In 1895 the Corporation of the City of Adelaide began to experiment with electric street lighting. The first electric arc lamp was switched on at the intersection of King William, Hindley and Rundle streets in October 1895. Messrs Thomson of Bank Street had their own electricity supply station, supplying light to the Theatre Royal, the South Australian Hotel, the Eagle Tavern and various shops, and they were prepared to help light the streets. Electric supply on a large scale began in 1898 after a private act of parliament in 1897 authorised the South Australian Electric Light and Motive Power Company to supply power throughout South Australia.
A power house was built in Nile Street, Port Adelaide, and was used from 1899. It rapidly changed hands, first to the Brush Electrical Engineering Co Ltd, and then in 1900 to the Electric Lighting and Traction Co of Australia.
This company continued to supply the whole of the direct-current load at Port Adelaide until1907. The 4000-volt single phase supply then became available from the new Grenfell Street Power House and all street lamps were changed over to alternating current. In 1904 the Adelaide Electric Supply Co took over operations and by 1907 was supplying all electric power in Adelaide.
By the 1920s power generation requirements had outgrown the site. The Osborne Power Station was built near Port Adelaide in 1920-23 and by 1930 it was providing the whole of the company’s output, covering both the metropolitan area and the country.
The Power Station’s Grenfell Street façade dating from 1912-13 recalls the Palladian style. The boldly rusticated stuccoed base sets up a dramatic horizontal emphasis picked up by the cement rendered strings of upper floors. The East Terrace façade is one of the most powerful designs of this era to be seen in Adelaide. It features mannerist-style classical elements such as rustication, keystones, arched forms and cornices. There are no major alterations apparent. The adjacent converter station building on East Terrace is similar in style and strongly linked to this building (see ETSA Converter Station).
Together with the former MTT Converter Station, these two buildings are an impressive feature of the streetscape due to their construction, style and scale and their position on the corner of Grenfell Street and East Terrace corner.