Stonehenge at sunset
Photovoltaic array in Germany, 2007
Solar array on the International Space Station, 2000
  • 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

Play Timeline

Early Solar Power Technology

In the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, the study of solar energy focused on so-called “burning glasses.” As noted by various Greek philosophers, mirrors and convex lenses can be used to concentrate the Sun’s rays, generate significant heat, and potentially start fires. Researchers throughout the Middle Ages made an effort to refine and improve burning glasses, and to experiment with mirrors to amplify their effect. In this regard, the centre of research shifted to the Muslim world in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Persian scientist Ibn Sahl investigated the properties of light and mirrors, and, in his work On Burning Mirrors and Lenses (984 CE), was the first to detail and explain refraction—the bending of light as it passes through different materials. Perhaps the most prolific researcher on this topic was Alhazen, a Basra-born scientist and mathematician who lived most of his life in Cairo, Egypt. Alhazen made innumerable contributions to the study of optics, and further refined the understanding of how mirrors and lenses could focus sunlight and generate heat.

This research continued on into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as scientists experimented with various ways to refine and improve the technology. In addition to using it to ignite fires, scientists began to explore wider applications of this process. In short, how could the power of the Sun’s energy be captured, concentrated, and then applied to some other practical purpose? French engineer Salomon de Caus was one of the first to do so, using a burning glass to power a small water pump and fountain in 1615. In 1747, the French King Louis XV was presented with a mirror that could concentrate light to such a degree that its heat could melt silver. And twenty years later, Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure developed the first solar oven (or ‘heat box,’ as he called it), which captured the heat from the Sun’s rays through several layers of glass. The heat was sufficient to generate a temperature inside the box of 110°C (230°F). By the end of the eighteenth century, however, the practical applications of solar energy were still very limited.

The possibility of an expanded role for solar power came with the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the development of steam-powered factory machinery and transportation, coal became the most important fuel in the industrialized world. Some, however, believed that solar energy offered a viable alternative as a power source. French scientist Augustin Mouchot was an early advocate of alternative energy; he cautioned that the world’s supply of coal was finite and could run out with little notice. With the financial backing of the French government, Mouchot developed a series of solar concentrators that powered steam engines in the 1860s and 1870s. Other scientists were inspired by Mouchot’s work and found ways to apply solar power to other sorts of machines, including water pumps and the printing press.

The full potential of solar energy, however, went unrealized. Solar powered machinery was typically large, expensive, and not terribly efficient. Scientists like Mouchot had faith in the future of the technology, but long-term research and development of solar power required substantial time and investment. With the cost of coal declining by the early twentieth century, and few pausing to heed Mouchot’s warning about the dangers of overreliance on a non-renewable energy source, the perceived benefits of solar power did not outweigh the costs; conventional fuels were simply cheaper and much more efficient. By the turn of the twentieth century, the application of solar power as an energy source for modern technology was still in its infancy.

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