The Wired Northwest
The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s
Paul W. Hirt
The Pacific Northwest holds an abundance of resources for energy production, from hydroelectric power to coal, nuclear power, wind turbines, and even solar panels. But hydropower is king. Dams on the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, Kootenay, and dozens of other rivers provided the foundation for an expanding, regionally integrated power system in the U.S. Northwest and British Columbia. A broad historical synthesis chronicling the region's first century of electrification, Paul Hirt's new study reveals how the region's citizens struggled to build a power system that was technologically efficient, financially profitable, and socially and environmentally responsible.
Hirt shows that every energy source comes with its share of costs and benefits. Because Northwest energy development meant river development, the electric power industry collided with the salmon fishing industry and the treaty rights of Northwest indigenous peoples from the 1890s to the present. Because U.S. federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built many of the large dams in the region, a significant portion of the power supply is publicly owned, initiating contentious debates over how that power should best serve the citizens of the region. Hirt dissects these ongoing battles, evaluating the successes and failures of regional efforts to craft an efficient yet socially just power system.
“An important contribution to understanding not only electrical power, but the ways in which its infrastructure creates new regional spaces and politics”
—Pacific Historical Review
“An ambitious, comprehensive and integrated history of regional power in Washington, Utah, Oregon, and British Columbia from the 1870s to the 1970s.”
—Pacific Northwest QuarterlySee all reviews...
“A richly detailed, sweeping study. . . . Hirt’s international. comparative approach enables the reader to contrast the implementation and implications of a broad range of policy decisions.”
—Montana The Magazine of Western History
“Ambitious in scope, deeply researched, and engagingly written, this book surveys the history of electrical power development in the Pacific Northwest, including the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, plus the Canadian Province of British Columbia. . . . Readers will be impressed by Hirt’s depth of research and his skill in weaving a coherent narrative . . . This book is required reading for anyone interested in how electricity became so essential in shaping modern society.”
—Water and Power
“A masterful account of changes in the political economy of electric power in the Northwest contrasted with developments in the rest of the US and Canada. Hirt examines how a mix of conflicting interests—urban-rural, public-private, dams versus fish, and planning versus markets—shaped the regional power grid to the 1970s. Given current calls for the development of a smart grid capable of integrating decentralized solar and wind resources into an otherwise centralized network, this accessible volume about past system-shaping policy choices is especially timely. Highly recommended. :”
“[This] is the beauty of Hirt’s book: it is as much of social, political, and technological history as it is an environmental history.”
“One of the more creative and talented environmental historians, Paul Hirt offers an original and perceptive approach to studying the revolutionary implications of the coming of electrical power to the Pacific Northwest.”
—William G. Robbins, author of Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American West and Nature’s Northwest:The North Pacific Slope in the Twentieth Century
“The history of electric power in the Pacific Northwest is not a new topic. It has attracted substantial attention because of the importance of spectacular hydroelectric development, the region's role in the atomic age, and the direct conflict between dams and fish that epitomizes some of the essential environmental choices faced by contemporary society. Hirt’s book, however, is the first to provide a broad synthesis and comprehensive exploration of the region's power history.”
—Carl Abbott, author How Cities Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America
“Dare I use the word 'illuminating' to describe Paul Hirt’s valuable new study of electrification in the United States and Canada? I could also call it magisterial in its coverage of various facets of electrification as they applied to residents of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, and hence to their nations as a whole. To successfully synthesize so much information—gleaned from original documents as well as from previously published studies and ranging from early trolleys to Columbia River dams—is by any measure a notable achievement. Successfully narrating this complex story in so readable a fashion makes The Wired Northwest doubly impressive.”
—Carlos Schwantes, author of The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive HistorySee fewer reviews...
Focusing on the dynamics of problem-solving, governance, and the tense relationship between profit-seeking and the public interest, Hirt's narrative takes in a wide range of players-not only on the consumer side, where electricity transformed mills, mines, households, commercial districts, urban transit, factories, and farms, but also power companies operating at the local and regional level, and investment companies that financed and in some cases parasitized the operators. His study also straddles the international border. It is the first book to compare energy development in the U.S. Northwest and British Columbia.
Both engaging and balanced in its treatment of all the actors on this expansive stage, The Wired Northwest helps us better understand the challenges of the twenty-first century, as we try to learn from past mistakes and re-design an energy grid for a more sustainable future.