Ada McColl collecting buffalo chips near Lakin, Kansas, 1892
Upper Hot Springs pool and view of Bow Valley, Banff National Park, ca. 1935
One of the geothermal plants at The Geysers, California, 2012
  • 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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Biomass in Modern Alberta History

Biomass remained an important source of fuel for Albertans well into the twentieth century, both on a small scale in stove-heated homes and in centralized power generation. Indeed, Alberta’s first major electric generating plant was powered by biofuel. Peter Prince, manager of the Eau Claire Lumber operation on the Bow River in the late 1880s, recognized that the waste products of the company’s sawmill could be burned to fuel a steam-powered electric generator. Prince installed a
75 kW steam-driven generator that was fuelled with scrap wood and sawdust. Not only did this plant produce electricity for the sawmill, it also provided excess power the company was able to sell to the City of Calgary, which needed additional electricity for its streetlights. The plant would continue to operate until 1928.

The importance of biomass as a commercial source of fuel declined in Alberta during the 1910s and 1920s, replaced by coal and hydro power. Similarly, ethanol—a fuel derived from corn or grain that was used as early as 1908 to fuel automobiles—was sidelined by gasoline in the emerging motor vehicle market (though with advances in technology, it later emerged as a viable fuel). Bioenergy thus played a very minimal role in Alberta’s growth and development for decades, as investment in natural resources focused on conventional sources of energy. The 1973 Oil Crisis, however, acted as a significant catalyst for research into alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. In Alberta today, bioenergy is produced from a number of different sources and processes, including the following:

  • Biogas: Biogas may be referred to as “renewable natural gas” or “green methane,” containing approximately 70% methane. Biogas is created through the fermentation of organic feedstock, including manure, food processing waste or various plant life. Biodigestors heat organic feedstock, causing anaerobic bacteria to multiply and feed on solids within the feedstock. The byproduct of this is biogas. As the gas is produced, it rises to the top of the digester and is collected into a piping system. Biogas is often used in the generation of electricity to generate heat and steam to drive turbines.
  • Ethanol: Fuel ethanol is a form of alcohol, fermented and distilled from a wide range of plant life such as wheat, corn or canola. Through a process called hydrolysis of grain starch, starches found in plants are converted to sugars that are fermented to produce ethanol. This ethanol is then distilled and dried to produce anhydrous ethanol. New technologies, often referred to as “second generation ethanol technologies,” are also emerging that allow raw materials such as forestry waste or municipal solid waste to be turned into ethanol. Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline for use in motor vehicles. Many ethanol blended gasolines are available throughout Canada, typically varying from 5% to 10% ethanol blend. Ethanol blended gasoline improves engine performance while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Gasoline containing 10% ethanol reduces emissions by 3% to 8%.
  • Biodiesel: Biodiesel is a renewable fuel manufactured from vegetable oils, recycled cooking greases or animal fats. It can be used either as a blended fuel with petroleum diesel or as a pure fuel. Blended biodiesel can often be used without any engine modification. Biodiesel reduces the level of several diesel pollutants including sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
  • Second-Generation Biofuels: Second-generation biofuels are produced from a large base of biomass materials, such as forest and agricultural residues as well as municipal solid waste. They differ from the first-generation of biofuels in that they are not produced from crops such as corn, sugar cane and wheat.

In 2009, the Government of Alberta instituted the “Nine-Point Bioenergy Plan” to encourage research and investment in this field. Alberta is now home to many innovative projects seeking to fully harness the potential of this underutilized source of energy.

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