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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Rural Electrification in Alberta

By the end of the First World War, electricity was well established in Alberta. The province was home to the first municipally-owned power utility in the country; Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge all enjoyed the benefits of modern, electric streetcar systems; and the Bow River had been harnessed to generate power at the Horseshoe Falls Dam, with plans for future hydroelectric development well underway. There was just one group that had not yet enjoyed the benefits of electricity—the majority of the population that lived in rural, rather than urban, Alberta.

Up through the 1920s, there was little pressure to extend electricity into rural Alberta. Electricity was still viewed as something of a novelty rather than as a necessity, and the cost of rural electrification was prohibitive, both for the companies that would have to pay for the new infrastructure necessary to deliver it, and by the farmers themselves who would have to add the monthly cost of electricity to already tight operating budgets. By the early 1920s, however, a third option was being discussed throughout the province—a publicly-owned utility. The province would assume financial responsibility for the

cost of the infrastructure and regulate prices to ensure a fair deal for farmers. Public utilities were well established at the provincial level in Manitoba and Ontario, and momentum seemed to be moving Alberta in that direction after the First World War. In addition, a new government, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), took power in Alberta.

The UFA began as a grassroots populist movement and entered politics for the first time with great success in the 1921 provincial election, winning a majority government. Resolutions at UFA conventions across the province had called for rural electrification and public ownership, resolutions that were supported by the women’s auxiliary of the movement, the United Farm Women of Alberta. The UFA government explored the possibility of rural electrification in the 1920s, but the estimated cost—$200 million—was deemed prohibitively expensive. Still, advocates pushed for rural electrification and public ownership through the 1920s until the Great Depression shelved any possibility of such a major public investment. In short, the government could not afford to pay for the infrastructure, and farmers certainly couldn’t pay for the monthly cost in the ravaged agricultural economy.

Pressure for rural electrification resumed after the Second World War. Electricity was no longer viewed as a frivolous luxury, either by farmers (who increasingly viewed it as essential to the operation of their farms) or by their wives (who wanted access to labour-saving electronic appliances that were increasingly available after the Second World War). Alberta certainly stood out as lagging far behind in rural electrification; in 1945, less than four percent of Alberta farms had electricity, a number far behind most other provinces and the American Midwest. Further, the cause of rural electrification (and public utility ownership) received political support from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, one of the opposition parties challenging Social Credit’s hold on power in Alberta. Against the forces calling for rural electrification and public ownership were the power companies, who resisted delivering power to rural areas because of the cost; urban dwellers, who did not want to bear the cost of the necessary infrastructure; and the Social Credit premier, Ernest Manning, who recognized the pressing need for rural electrification, but was staunchly opposed to public ownership. The issue was finally decided in a heated 1948

plebiscite, when the voters of Alberta rejected public ownership by the narrowest of margins (the ‘no’ side won by 151 votes out of a total of 279,831 cast).

With the idea of government ownership now dismissed, the cost of rural electrification would fall to the farmers, who turned to a solution typical of the rural West—the co-operative. Farmers across the province organized into co-ops to raise half the necessary money for electricity in their districts; the government provided the rest of the money in the form of loans. By the late 1960s, a total of 416 co-ops (known as Rural Electrification Associations, or REAs) had been established. The REAs would own the power distribution system in their districts, while the power companies provided the electricity and the maintenance. Many REAs even played a significant role providing labour for building the infrastructure, lending a hand with preparing and raising power poles. The results were extraordinary; while only a tiny minority of Albertan farmers enjoyed the benefits of electricity at the end of the Second World War, 87% of rural Alberta had access to electricity by 1961.

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