Orlando Power Station - a legacy of POWER

Researched by Sue Krige

ORLANDO POWER STATION, in its heydays from 1964 to 1989, was one of the most advanced power stations in the southern hemisphere. Although the facility is no longer in operation, you can still FEEL THE POWER!!!
  • Orlando Power Station was constructed in three phases between 1939 and 1955.
  • Initially, the spray ponds in the dam were used to cool the steam from the boilers.
  • In 1951 the two cooling towers were added as additional cooling mechanisms, as the power station was extended.
  • At the time the cooling towers were considered to be state-of-the-art structurally, both locally and internationally.
  • Orlando Power Station functioned until 1998, way beyond it’s intended lifespan. 

Ithe power of power

The history of this precinct, an island of sorts in a segregated sea, is part of a history which links Soweto back to its origins in Newtown and to the city of Johannesburg, and connects it to a global context. This history centres on the generation and supply of electricity under an increasingly harsh political regime. Implicit in the history of Johannesburg’s electricity is an exploration of ‘the power of power’. 

the increasing demand for power from the 1930s

All major municipalities extended their power stations or built new ones in the period 1935-1945. Johannesburg was no different. Industrial and business development between 1927 and 1937 meant that the electricity load exceeded all estimates of demand. Indeed the load trebled, and doubled again during the three and a half years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. 

As early as 1935, the Council had begun to consider the construction of Orlando Power Station, recognizing that City Generating Station could not keep up with the demand for power. This demand for power was the result of ‘abnormal rate of expansion’ in Johannesburg. 

why Orlando? choosing a site

The site, ‘about nine miles from the City on the north side of the Potchefstroom Road’, offered easy access to both coal and water. On the site was a dam constructed originally prior to 1907. The dam’s area of 65 acres was suited to the cooling requirements of first 40 MW of plant. The cooling process would be supplemented with spray ponds. 

It was close to the main Soweto railway line running on western boundary, which would facilitate coal and plant transportation. The ever present problem of ash disposal could be solved by a ‘large valley adjacent to site. Ground conditions of soft rock were ideally suited to heavy foundation requirements. 

three phases

In 1937, the City obtained approval from Administrator of the Transvaal for funds to borrow to build new Power Station. Like the City Generating Station, Orlando was built in stages, and was eclipsed before the final stage was complete. 

The station would ultimately consist of
  • 10 X 30 MW turbo-alternators
  • 20 X 175,000 lb per hour boilers operating at 600 lb per square inch and 825 ° Fahrenheit 
However, it would be built in three stages, using identical design and type of construction with each extension. Orlando was regarded as an ultra-modern station with state of the art turbines, using high temperatures and pressures, with higher thermal efficiencies than the City Generating Station. 

By February 1942, Orlando was able to contribute 20% of total power production of the City’s combined stations.  

the cooling towers go up

In 1951 two cooling towers were built, as the cooling capacity of dam had reached maximum. The erection of additional boilers started in January 1952 and the first turbine in August 1952. Construction was completed in late 1954.

the largest municipal power station in the southern hemisphere

The General manager noted with pride that, ‘with possible exception of one other, Orlando Power Station is the most efficient power station in South Africa. A City Electricity Department pamphlet boasted that:’ Johannesburg will then have the largest Municipal Power Station in the Southern Hemisphere… a power station second to none’.

the long life of Orlando power station

At the 50th anniversary function in 1992, Gilbert Marshall noted that Orlando’s ‘working life had exceeded many of the man who made it. ‘The City Treasurer who raised the loans.... planned on a life of 25 years, and designers hoped it would last 35 years but the operators have kept it going for 50 years and clearly will keep doing so in the years ahead’.

The power station was finally closed in 1998 after 56 years of operation. The cooling towers remain a significant landmark in Soweto, and will continue to do so as one of the highlights on the tourist route through Soweto in their new life as a vertical adventure center.

For more information on the history of the site, please contact:
Sue Krige
Independent Historical and Heritage Consultant.

And then there were 10... And then there were 10...
(photo courtesy Sue Krige)

The original Turbine Hall The original Turbine Hall
(photo courtesy Sue Krige)

The cooling towers as seen from Orlando East The cooling towers as seen from Orlando East
(photo courtesy Sue Krige)