Beautiful in its abandonment: the red-brick power station at Pasir Panjang

20 06 2017

There is a certain charm about the utilitarian, red-brick faced ‘A’ power station at Pasir Panjang. Comparable in appearance to the much-loved and now lost National Library at Stamford Road, the former station stands in relative obscurity in a neglected corner of Singapore.

Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station. Commissioned in 1953, it was Singapore’s second power station. Decommisisoned in the early 1980s, it lost its two iconic 235 foot high chimneys in the 1990s.

‘A’ station, completed in 1952-53, acquired the designation ‘A’ when a second or ‘B’ station was added just adjacent to it in 1965. Built at a time when such red-brick faced constructions seemed the fashion, it is evocative of an age at which the foundations for Singapore’s huge transformation were being laid. The elegance that ‘A’ station wears, one that seems to be missing in the form of its nearby and more modern counterpart, belies the fact that the station had been built in desperate circumstances. At the point of its opening, Singapore’s second station, constructed almost three decades after the first, was badly needed due to an acute shortage in electricity supply. St. James, Singapore’s first power station, which had been built with an initial capacity of 2 MW in 1926., was producing a maximum of 37 MW by 1948 (see also Electricity in Singapore). However, by 1950, maximum demand stood at 43.5 MW, and with the supply clearly insufficient, load shedding was introduced. This affected one-third of the electrical consumers in the municipality turned city each night.

The red brick power station and its two 235 feet high chimneys in the early days of the station (online at https://roots.sg/).

‘A’ power station was opened by Governor Sir John Nicoll on 3 July 1953 to great promise. Two of the intended six 25 MW turbo-alternators had been commissioned by then. More were to be added and by 1958, it had reached it intended output of 150 MW – a number that was thought at the planning stage to be sufficient to meet power supply requirements for 20 years. In that time, 260 substations were also built, some 230 kilometres of 22kV distribution cables laid (there also was an upgrade from a 6.6 kV transmission system to a 22 kV one) and 34,700 consumers added. Bulk supply could also provided to Johor Bahru. Power supplied by the station also helped launch Singapore’s big industrial push in the 1960s. With demand already reaching 105.7 MW in at the point of the commissioning of the sixth alternator, an additional 25 kW was added to Pasir Panjang ‘A’ station’s capacity in 1962. With demand increasing,  the construction of a new station, the ‘B’ station, commenced soon after  in 1963.

The former Pasir Panjang ‘B’ Power Station, which was opened in October 1965.

‘B’ station opened with an initial capacity of 120 MW in October 1965, half of its planned capacity of 240 MW. Even this would not be enough to fuel the rapid growth in demand and a new 240 MW power station in Jurong Industrial Estate had to be planned for as the ‘B’ station was taking shape. The commissioning of ‘B’ Station also allowed electrical power supplied to the island of Pulau Bukom from November 1965. Power on the island, where Shell commissioned Singapore’s first refinery in the early 1960s, had to be drawn from the island’s own generating plant prior to this. The opening of the ‘B’ station also saw the transmission system upgraded to 66kV with the existing 22 kV system relegated to a sub-transmission system (the current high voltage transmission network, introduced in 1976, distributes electricity at 230 kV).

Inside the Turbine Hall of the ‘A’ power station (online at National Archives of Singapore Online).

The death knell for the stations was sounded in the late 1970s with more advanced, higher capacity, and cleaner (one common complaint was of soot falling from the sky in the area) power stations such as Senoko and Pulau Seraya being built. ‘A’ station was decommissioned in mid-1980 and ‘B’ in the late 1990s. The stations’ buildings were re-purposed following their decommissioning and are still standing today sans their iconic chimneys. While ‘A’ station is now left vacant, ‘B’ station’s main building is currently in use as the Pasir Panjang District Office of SP PowerGrid Ltd. It is not known what the future holds for the two sets of buildings as the only thing that the URA Master Plan tells us, is that the stations sit on a “reserve site”.

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Note: My visit to the former Pasir Panjang Power Station was made with the kind permission of the Singapore Land Authority.


The abandoned Pasir Panjang ‘A’ Power Station

The cleared out Turbine Hall.

Tall steel columns of the Turbine Hall – part of the metal skeleton of the building.

Reflections on the Turbine Hall.

The building has a generous amount of windows to allow natural light in.

Space under the platform of the Turbine Hall.

Reflections of the skylight in the Turbine Hall.

A steel beam, marked with its origin.

Electricity was distributed at 6. 6 kV before Pasir Panjang was built, when high-voltage transmission was done at 22 kV. The Pasir Panjang generators produced electricity at distribution voltage, and this be fed directly into the transmission network.

Transmission was switched to a higher voltage of 66 kV when the ‘B’ station was completed in 1965 and the 22 kV transmission network was used as a sub-distribution system.

Colour coded fire hydrant.

Stairway to the platform level.

The Boiler Hall.

Steel columns on the platform level.

Another view of the platform level.

Bracing on the steel framework.

Storage tanks for the power station’s oil fired boilers.

A weighbridge.

A last look at the Turbine Hall.


Some ‘B’ station facilities

‘B’ station’s pump house – the cooling plant, originally supplied by Mather and Platt Ltd, could supply 50,000 gallons of water a minute.

Inside the pump house.

Inside the pump house.

The added capacity of the ‘B’ power station permitted the supply of power to Pulau Bukom in Nov 1965. The commissioning to the ‘B’ power station also saw a shift to a 66 kV high voltage distribution network with the 22 kV network relegated to a sub-transmission system.

A room inside the chlorine handling facility.

Inside the chlorine handling facility.


Electricity in Singapore

The use of electricity for the purposes of lighting in Singapore goes back to 1897 when the Tanjong Pagar Dock company introduced electric lighting to its machine shops. It would be some years before the Municipality would adopt electric street lighting, which was introduced to Raffles Place, North Bridge Road and Boat Quay in 1906. This move coincided with the installation of a generator by the Singapore Tramways Company (later Singapore Traction Company) at MacKenzie Road for the purposes of powering its electric trams. Excess electricity distributed via a 460 V D.C. three-wire network, was sold in bulk to the Municipality, who in turn also sold electricity to some 42 consumers. This grew to 110 consumers in the first year and expanded rapidly thereafter.

The generating station at Singapore Tramways Company’s MacKenzie Road depot.

This arrangement went on for some 20 years, with supply also provided by the Singapore Harbour Board from 1924, until the coal fired St. James Power Station was built in 1926. The construction of the station were on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the Municipal Commission. The site at the promontory at St. James was selected due to its location by the coast as well as its proximity to the railway line, which ran to Pasir Panjang. This allowed the coal required to fire the station’s boilers to be delivered either by sea or by rail.

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