Turning Point 4: Seattle City Light: 100 Years of Public Power

  • By David Wilma and Priscilla Long
  • Posted 1/24/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9295
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This the fourth in a series of special essays commissioned by The Seattle Times to examine crucial turning points in the history of Seattle and King County. "Seattle City Light" considers public ownership of utilities and the growth of electrical energy usage in Seattle. It was written by David Wilma and Priscilla Long and first published on January 24, 2001.

Electricity rates in Seattle are too high. Private utility companies make too much money. Consumers disbelieve what the big utilities are saying. Politicians struggle to find an answer. The year? 1901.

Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb was demonstrated in Seattle in 1886. After that, private firms (granted franchises by the City Council) supplied street lighting and power for streetcars. Under the umbrella of the Boston conglomerate Stone and Webster, these firms dictated transit fares and routes, and electricity service areas and rates. Controlling transit and electric power translated into controlling Seattle, and Seattleites railed against the monopoly.

Fire Changes Minds

However, it was not skillful rhetoric but fire that won the argument against private ownership of public services. On June 6, 1889, Seattle's Great Fire started in a Pioneer Square carpentry shop. Inadequate, privately owned water mains went dry on the job. The downtown burned to the ground. Seattle became a town impressed with the wisdom of public ownership of utilities. The city purchased the water utility and City Engineer R. H. Thomson built a 37-mile pipeline from the Cedar River to a reservoir in Volunteer Park. Tapping the Cedar for its hydroelectric potential was the obvious next step.

In 1902, voters approved the construction of a hydroelectric plant at Cedar Falls and Seattle City Light was born. James Delmage "J. D." Ross, a self-educated, spiffily dressed engineer, supervised the construction of a wood-frame power house with two 1,500-kilowatt generators.

Let There Be Light

Electric lights first illuminated Seattle streets in January 1905; residential lighting became available in October. City Light provided free installation and free replacement light globes, all for 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour or less. The private Seattle Electric Co., which had been charging 20 cents per kilowatt hour (more than 50 times the 2000 rate), immediately dropped its rates.

City Light operated under the Water Department until 1910 when it became a separate department. Seattle Mayor George W. Dilling named J. D. Ross superintendent in 1911.

By 1910, the Cedar Falls plant boasted four generators and three times its original output, but consumers demanded more. The quest for bigger and better sources of electric power characterized City Light for the rest of the century. Hydropower was cheaper by far than coal or oil, and numerous swift-running rivers tumbled out of the Cascades.

With persistence and good timing, Ross secured dam sites on the Skagit River, 100 miles from Seattle. City Light eventually built Gorge (1924), Diablo (1930), Ross (1940), and High Gorge (1961) dams on the Skagit, and Boundary Dam (1967) on the Pend Oreille River in northeast Washington. These dams provided so much cheap power that by the 1960s, residential rates dropped below 1 cent per kilowatt hour. City Light promoted the use of electricity by selling appliances directly to customers and by advertising the advantages of electricity. It was the era of unfettered use of natural resources, before concerns about the environment combined with ever-increasing demand to bring about efforts at conservation.

For almost 50 years, Seattle City Light and its privately owned competitor fought it out in the courts, in the state Legislature, at the polls, and in the media. Public ownership of utilities became a tenet of progressive politics along with women's suffrage, trust-busting, Prohibition, and organized labor.

Superintendent Ross proved to be a master at presenting the case both for public ownership of utilities and for electric power. Electricity was good for more than just light and transit. Cheap, plentiful electricity would attract industries, jobs, prosperity. City Light wasn't just a utility, it was a "city builder."

New Deal, New Dams

In 1930, voters across the nation put public power advocates into office, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. A major part of Roosevelt's New Deal to fight the Great Depression involved support for public power, including the development of dams on the Columbia River. Roosevelt appointed Ross, with his vision of a future bright with electricity, as first administrator of the agency that distributed Columbia River power, the Bonneville Power Administration.

Good Times Come to an End

The era of cheap and plentiful power could not last forever, and it finally ended in the late 1960s. Environmental concerns checked the development of new dam sites and of nuclear power. Planners projected an energy deficit. In 1971, City Light had to ask the City Council for its first rate increase in 50 years, and it stopped promoting the use of electricity. Even before the 1973 oil shortage created an energy crisis, City Light advocated conservation with its "Kill-a-Watt" campaign. Rates continued to climb. A costly steam plant built on Lake Union in 1914 was closed. Customers wrapped their water heaters and insulated their attics to increase efficiency. Office buildings designed to burn lights 24 hours a day installed switches to turn off the lights at night. City Light upgraded and expanded power houses to squeeze still more energy out of the rivers. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Seattle tapped small irrigation and water-supply dams as far away as Southern Idaho for hydroelectric power.

New concerns limit options. The environmental consequences of new dams, including the loss of salmon habitat, precludes much in the way of hydro development, something the early builders did not worry about.

Adjusted for inflation, Seattle consumers pay about what they did for electric power in the 1960s, far less than in the early 1900s. But the need for more power -- and for more conservation -- persists

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