Entries tagged as History
Our local PBS station, KCTS 9, aired a new documentary last night about the underground hydro-electric project at Snoqualmie Falls. The show was peculiarly captivating1. A young, bankrupt businessman and engineer – Charles H. Baker – conceived of the idea in the late 1890s to build a hydro-electric generation plant 250 feet below the Snoqualmie River, just before the falls. At that time in history, electric power was being generated – when it was even available – by small, coal-fired steam plants. The dominant power technology (Edison’s Direct Current) could only transmit power for about a mile, requiring that neighborhood power plants dot the cityscape. Tesla’s competing Alternating Current (AC) electric systems could transmit power much further, which would be the necessary if power generated at Snoqualmie Falls were to reach the Seattle market some 30 miles to the West.
As the documentary progressed, I waited with baited breath to hear what went wrong – what dashed Baker’s dreams of electrifying the region with hydro-electric power from the Snoqualmie Falls. Was it that nothing similar had ever been done before? Was it the smear campaign waged by detractors of the project who claimed that it would never work and circulated misinformation, such as the lie that the Snoqualmie River ran dry during the summer and froze solid during the winter? To my surprise, the documentary continued to tell of how Baker persevered in the face of one challenge after another. Not only did he build the underground generation plant at Snoqualmie Falls, but the generation plant is still there and operational! The same equipment built over a hundred years ago is still producing power for the region! I was dumbfounded. I had never heard about a power generation facility at the Falls.
Watching the documentary further, parallels between Baker’s hydro-power project and Seattle’s Fiber to the Home project struck me as palpable. It’s not that a municipal Fiber to the Home network is entirely unique today2, unlike an underground hydro-electric plant then. Instead, it was incredible to realize that Seattle finds itself, today, at a similar precipice to what we faced more than a hundred years ago.
In the final days of the Nineteenth Century, Seattle was served by a small number of electric producers who generated power using an inferior technology (i.e., Direct Current from coal-fired steam generators). It was costly and severely limited in transmission distance. A technological innovation (i.e., Alternating Current from hydro power) resulted in less costly power with none of the same transmission distance limitations3. Incumbent power producers sought to protect their entrenched businesses through a misinformation campaign and political scheming rather than embrace the fact that a technological innovation changed the industry rules and that they would need to adapt or die. Does this sound familiar? If not, try replacing “Direct Current” with “Copper Pairs and Coax” and “Alternating Current” with “Fiber”.
The documentary finishes with example after example of how the power from Snoqualmie Falls was transformative to the region’s economy and the entire Country. We have that opportunity, again. A municipal Fiber network connecting every home and business in the City of Seattle to each other and the Internet would transform the region in a more dramatic way than any other contemporary proposal. Replacing the 520 bridge and the viaduct are necessary transportation infrastructure projects. Fixing the seawall and our public schools are good forward-thinking policies. But nothing would give more opportunity to more Seattle residents form every socio-economic status than a Seattle Fiber Utility.
1 The full-length video is embedded in this post and available at http://www.vimeo.com/5530039.
2 More than fifty municipal or public utility district Fiber networks currently operate in the United States. A list is available on page five of the FTTH Council's paper, titled "Municipal Fiber to the Home Deployments: Next Generation Broadband as a Municipal Utility".
3 The power produced at Snoqualmie Falls sold for 50% to 66% less than power produced by coal-fired steam generators [film time 00:39:42]. Municipal Fiber networks provide superior Internet, television, and phone services at a lower cost than incumbent providers without the need for tax-based financing.