Nature’s electric lightshow
Thomas Alva Edison
Alberta Legislature Building decorated with lights, 1912
  • Spear points from the Clovis phase found in present-day Alberta.<br/>Source: Historical Resources Management Branch, Archaeological Survey

    Clovis phase spear points used in present-day Alberta.

    Clovis phase spear points represent the oldest hunting technology in Alberta, and indeed all of North America. These fluted, jagged stone points would be attached to a bone or wooden shaft and used to hunt enormous prey such as mammoths and mastodons.
    Source: Historical Resources Management Branch, Archaeological Survey

  • Diagram of an atlatl (spear-thrower)<br/>Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

    Atlatl (spear-thrower) technology emerges in present-day Alberta.

    Atlatls were used by early hunter’s to increase the velocity of their projectile weapons. Spears or darts thrown with an atlatl could deliver devastating wounds to an animal, allowing the hunter to kill the animal from a safe distance.
    Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

  • Representation of an early hunter drawing a bow<br/>Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

    Bow and arrow technology reaches present-day Alberta.

    Bow and arrow technology in North America appears to have developed first in the Arctic before spreading south throughout the continent. The bow and arrow was ideally suited for use in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, and was widely adopted across the region.
    Source: Courtesy of Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

  • Petroglyph of a mounted hunter chasing a bison, Milk River<br/>Source: Royal Alberta Museum

    The ‘Horse Revolution’ begins in present-day Alberta.

    Horses were brought to North America by Spanish colonists in the sixteenth century. From the Spanish colony of New Mexico, horses spread across North America, reaching present-day Alberta in the 1730s. The adoption of the horse had a significant impact on the hunting/transportation patterns of Plains First Nations peoples.
    Source: Royal Alberta Museum

  • Swimmers Enjoying the Banff Hot Springs, ca. 1935<br/>Source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, v263-na-3562

    Rocky Mountains National Park is established by the Canadian government.

    One of the main attractions of the new park was the site’s natural hot springs. The luxurious Banff Springs Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888, pumped water from the hot springs into its swimming pools and treatment rooms. Tourists flocked to the site to take advantage of the water’s supposed therapeutic healing powers.
    Source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, v263-na-3562

  • Calgary Water Power Company hydroelectric plant, n.d.<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4477-44

    The Calgary Water Power Company opens Alberta’s first hydroelectric plant.

    The company was owned by entrepreneur Peter Prince, who also ran the Eau Claire & Bow River Lumber Company. From 1894 to 1905, the company was the major electricity provider for the city of Calgary.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4477-44

  • The city power plant in Edmonton, 1912<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-271

    The City of Edmonton purchases the Edmonton Electric Lighting Company.

    The decision in favour of public ownership was made after repeated disruptions in service from the privately-owned utility. Edmonton was the first major urban centre in Canada to own its own electricity utility.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NC-6-271

  • Changing the name from Calgary Power to TransAlta, 1981<br/>Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

    The Calgary Power Company is formed.

    The founder of the company, Max Aitken, was initially drawn to the region by its vast hydroelectricity potential. The company would develop into Canada’s largest investor-owned utility. In 1981, the company changed its name to TransAlta Utilities Corporation, in order to better reflect its provincial reach.
    Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

  • Calgary Power’s power house at Horseshoe Falls on the Bow River, ca. 1912<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives NA-3544-28

    Alberta’s First hydroelectric dam opens at Horseshoe Falls.

    Owned and operated by Calgary Power, the Horseshoe Falls Dam was the first of two such facilities built on the Bow River system prior to the First World War. A second hydroelectric dam began operations at Kananaskis Falls in 1913.
    Source: Glenbow Archives NA-3544-28

  • Ghost Hydroelectric Dam, 1935<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5663-44

    The Ghost Hydroelectric Dam begins operations

    This massive facility was the largest hydroelectric dam in Alberta at the time it was built. The Ghost Power Plant more than doubled the amount of electricity generated by Calgary Power, which was already the province’s main energy supplier.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-5663-44

  • Rural electrification crew at work near Irma, 1951<br/>Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4160-20

    The first Rural Electrification Association (REA) in Alberta is established in Springbank.

    Over the next two decades, a total of 416 REAs would be established across the province. These organizations would play a crucial role in the spread of electricity to rural Alberta.
    Source: Glenbow Archives, NA-4160-20

  • CCF Advertisement in the People’s Weekly, August 14, 1948, urging people to support public utility ownership<br/>Source: Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

    Voters of Alberta narrowly reject proposal for public ownership of electricity utilities.

    The 1948 provincial election included a plebiscite concerning ownership of electricity utilities in Alberta. Rural areas largely voted in favour of public ownership, while urban voters (particularly in southern Alberta) supported a continuation of private ownership. In the end, the vote was extremely close, with public ownership defeated by a mere 151 votes.
    Source: Image courtesy of Peel’ Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries

  • Five of the turbines installed at Cowley Ridge Wind Farm<br/>Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

    Cowley Ridge Wind Farm begins operations near Pincher Creek.

    Cowley Ridge was Canada’s first commercial wind farm. A total of fifty-two wind turbines were installed in 1993-94. In 2000, the project was expanded with the addition of fifteen new (and much more powerful) turbines.
    Source: Photo courtesy of TransAlta

  • Aerial view of Drake Landing Solar Community<br/>Source: Wikimedia Commons/CA-BY-SA-3.0

    Drake Landing Solar Community opens near Okotoks, Alberta.

    Drake Landing is North American’s first fully integrated solar community. This award-winning initiative uses solar heating technology to provide the community with the majority of its space heating and hot water needs.
    Source: Wikimedia Commons/CA-BY-SA-3.0

  • AAdvanced Energy Research Facility, Edmonton, 2011LT<br/>Source: Photo Courtesy of Enerkem

    The City of Edmonton announces the launch of the ‘waste-to-biofuels’ project.

    The waste-to-biofuels project will convert garbage into biofuel by harvesting carbon from the waste material. The project includes an Advanced Energy Research Facility, which opened in 2012.
    Source: Photo Courtesy of Enerkem

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The Early History of Electricity in Alberta

Alberta was a relative latecomer to electricity in North America. There was little need for electricity in the province until its urban centres were large enough to create sufficient demand to make it cost effective. That point came in the 1880s and 1890s, when Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge all struck deals with local entrepreneurs to provide electricity to their respective cities. In all three cases, the population boom of the early 1900s put tremendous strains on the existing systems and raised a contentious debate about the relative merits of public versus private ownership of utilities.

Calgary was the first of Alberta’s urban centres to adopt electricity. In 1887, the Calgary Electric Lighting Company won the contract to install and power ten streetlights in downtown Calgary. The company soon faced a challenge from Peter Prince, an entrepreneur who owned a sawmill that was equipped with a steam-powered electric generator (fueled by scrap wood and sawdust). Prince used the electricity he generated

to power his mill, but sold the surplus to commercial and residential customers in Calgary. Prince, however, wanted a monopoly on electricity in Calgary, and he got his opportunity in 1892 when the Calgary Electric Lighting Company went bankrupt, leaving the city without a provider of electricity for its streetlights. Prince won that contract in 1894, and assumed a dominant position in Calgary’s electricity market for a decade.

Similarly, the City of Edmonton turned to private enterprise to provide for its early electricity needs. In 1891, the Edmonton Electric Lighting Company was established and won the contract to provide electricity for the city’s streetlights. In the case of Lethbridge, its early history of electricity was intimately linked to the coal industry. The first coal-fired electricity generator in Alberta began its operations outside of Lethbridge in 1874 to provide power for the coal mines; the first plant dedicated to providing power to the city of Lethbridge was built in 1893.

By the turn of the twentieth century, then, Alberta’s three largest cities were being provided with electricity by private enterprises. And within ten years, all three were facing major problems in their efforts to keep pace with the province’s explosive population growth. The problems were perhaps most acute for the Edmonton Electric Lighting Company, which had chosen to build its plant on the shore of the North Saskatchewan River. Severe flooding in 1899 and 1900 damaged the plant and raised the ire of customers who had to go for extended periods of time with no electricity. In 1902, armed with a public mandate, the City of Edmonton bought out the Edmonton Electric Lighting Company, becoming the first municipally-owned electric utility of its size in all of Canada.

Calgary followed a different model. Like Edmonton, the City of Calgary was not satisfied with its existing service at the turn of the twentieth century, and in 1904, it refused to renew Peter Prince’s ten-year monopoly contract. The municipal government built a coal-fueled power plant in 1905 to provide for some of Calgary’s needs, but it did not embrace public ownership of its electric utility as enthusiastically as Edmonton. Instead, the City sought out other partners in the private sector almost immediately. Several candidates emerged, but Calgary Power (now TransAlta) won out as the dominant private corporation in Calgary’s electricity market.

Finally, Lethbridge followed a model that took advantage of its dominant position in the coal industry. In 1907, the municipal government took control of electricity generation and distribution in Lethbridge, purchasing the facilities of the Lethbridge Electric Light Company and putting into motion plans to build a new power plant. The project faced numerous challenges, not the least of which was the fact that the old plant was destroyed by fire before the new plant was complete, requiring the city to depend for a time on surplus electricity generated from the coal mines. Nonetheless, by 1913 Lethbridge was able to offer electricity to its citizens for an exceptionally cheap price (two cents per kilowatt hour), due to the fact that the city government had access to cheap fuel through its own municipally-owned coal mine.

Faced with the common challenge of providing electricity for a constantly growing population, Alberta’s three largest cities in the early twentieth century thus followed slightly different models of development. The province was on the cusp of a major expansion in terms of its electricity generation—in 1911, Horseshoe Falls, the province’s first hydroelectric project, opened for business, with many more such projects to follow. Yet through the end of the Second World War, electricity in Alberta remained very much a feature of urban Alberta. It was not until the 1950s and beyond that rural Alberta enjoyed the benefits of electricity on a significant scale.

In this Section

Rural Electrification in Alberta

By the end of the First World War, electricity was well established in Alberta.

Coal Conventional Oil Turner Valley Gas Plant Natural Gas Oil Sands Bitumount Electricity & Alternative Energy