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 Quarterly
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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.

About the Author

Paul W. Hirt is an associate professor of history at Arizona State University, where he is also a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Global Institute of Sustainability. He is author of A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests since World War Two and editor of Terra Pacifica: People and Place in Northwest America and Western Canada.