EPCOR’s 120th Anniversary

Last night EPCOR held an event to celebrate its 120th anniversary. A few dozen EPCOR employees, board members, VIPs, and other guests met on the 20th floor of the new tower for a brief program before being invited up to the 28th floor for a reception and the opportunity to step out onto the balcony of Edmonton’s tallest building. President & CEO Don Lowry spoke briefly about EPCOR’s history and the opportunities ahead. He also thanked Mayor Mandel for his leadership and presented him with a pair of ice grips for his shoes, a nod to the Mayor’s recent slip and fall.

EPCOR's 120th

The 28th floor of the building is where EPCOR’s executive and legal offices will be located, and they are set to move in this week – the last of EPCOR’s employees to do so. I’m told the interior was being worked on right up to the reception, but the last minute completion didn’t show. Guests were invited out onto the balcony for a unique view of Edmonton at night.

Edmonton from Above
Looking north

Edmonton from Above
Looking west

Edmonton from Above
Looking back at downtown

There seem to be more opportunities to look south (from the Crowne Plaza, Coast Edmonton House, or the CWB building, etc.) so the view north is not one most Edmontonians are familiar with. It’s amazing at night to see just how far the lights go. You can see my post about the new EPCOR Tower here.

EPCOR's 120th

Founded on October 23, 1891 as the Edmonton Electric Lighting and Power Company, EPCOR has grown significantly over the years, and today provides water, wastewater, and electrical distribution services to over 1 million people across Western Canada. With a series of acquisitions in Arizona and New Mexico, EPCOR is becoming a series player outside of Canada as well.

Here are a few highlights from EPCOR’s history:

  • 1891: Electric lights come on in Edmonton.
  • 1903: First water treatment plant built at Rossdale
  • 1933: Edmonton’s first traffic light installed at Jasper Avenue and 101 Street
  • 1955: Rossdale switches from coal to gas
  • 1976: E.L. Smith Water Treatment Plant opens
  • 1996: EPCOR Utilities Inc. formed
  • 1999: Aqualta renamed EPCOR
  • 2009: Capital Power Corporation established

EPCOR was named one of Western Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures and one of Alberta’s Top 50 Employers in 2010 (see a full list of awards here). President & CEO Don Lowry was named Alberta Venture’s Business Person of the Year in 2010 as well.

Here’s to another 120 years!

The power cable is holding us back

power I spent some time over the weekend chatting with my friend Eric Warnke, who owns and operates the Third on Whyte Internet cafe here in Edmonton. We talked about a bunch of things, but mostly about wireless mesh networks. I’ve been writing about “wireless everywhere” for over five years now (since Imagine Cup 2003 to be exact), and Eric is one of those guys who is actually making it happen.

Eric has been experimenting with both the Meraki and Open Mesh technologies recently. There are others available as well, and we briefly brainstormed about creating our own little devices. The technology for extending 802.11g wireless is actually surprisingly simple and mature. And on the horizon of course, is WiMax and a host of other emerging technologies.

The problem with all of them, is power.

Even if the hardware becomes extremely energy efficient, each part still requires at least a little bit of power. The obvious solution for a mesh network with nodes located outdoors is to use solar panels, except that Edmonton’s climate is very unfriendly to such an idea (and don’t forget that solar panels are still relatively inefficient). That leaves us with either batteries or a power cable.

The main problem with batteries at the moment is that they need to be quite large if you want them to last for any reasonable about of time. Think of a laptop battery or the battery for an electric drill – each is about four times the size of the wireless components, and probably ten times the weight. Then there’s the problem of replacing the batteries when they die, or changing them when they need recharging.

So we’re stuck with the power cable. Despite all the technological progress we’ve made over the last 100 years, we’re still tethered by the power cable.

The first two chapters of Nicholas Carr’s book The Big Switch provide an extremely engaging history of Henry Burden, Thomas Edison, Samuel Insull, and the other individuals who were instrumental in making electricity the utility it is today. I like this part in particular:

Unlike lesser inventors, Edison didn’t just create individual products; he created entire systems. He first imagined the whole, then he built the necessary pieces, making sure they all fit together seamlessly.

Of course, Edison’s DC system eventually lost out to the superior AC. Still, I can’t help but think that we desperately need a modern day Edison. Just as Edison re-imagined urban gaslight systems, we need someone to re-imagine the modern electrical system.

Is wireless energy transfer the answer? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s better to start with a question – how can we eliminate the need for contact? Or at least make that contact less restrictive? For instance, instead of connecting a wireless node to a cable inside a lamppost, why can’t I just stick the node on the lamppost itself? That would be a good first step.

We need “power everywhere” before we’ll ever get to “wireless everywhere”. Unfortunately, batteries, solar panels, and other technologies aren’t getting us any closer to that reality at the moment. Surely there must be something else then?

Joel is wrong about Windows Vista's off switch

Post ImageNormally I agree with what Joel Spolsky has to say, but not today. His latest article, Choices = Headaches, smells like a lame attempt to bash Windows Vista just for the sake of it. He takes issue with the “fifteen” ways you can shutdown Windows Vista, though only nine of those apply to non-laptops. Here’s what he says:

I’m sure there’s a whole team of UI designers, programmers, and testers who worked very hard on the OFF button in Windows Vista, but seriously, is this the best you could come up with?

Joel apparently doesn’t think you can just press the power button – yet that’s exactly what I’d bet most people will end up doing. You can read all about the power button in this CNET News.com article which, by the way, was published over a year ago. Here’s a choice quote:

And with Vista, Microsoft plans to make it so that a PC seems more like all the other consumer electronics out there. Pressing the power button will give users the feeling they are either turning the machine on or turning it off.

So it really is as easy as Joel would like. And for crazy people out there like myself who want all the shutdown options, they are still there, tucked away neatly in a little menu.

I guess Joel’s main problem is having too much choice. Personally, I’m a fan of choice. The research I have come across is pretty divided on whether choice does more good or more harm. That said, Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail certainly makes more choice seem like the way to go. His newest catchphrase – the economics of abundance – conveys this idea really well too.

Note: I haven’t tried Windows Vista since the early betas, so I don’t know if the power button functionality has changed or not, but I haven’t come across anything to suggest that it has. Joel doesn’t say anything about it in his post either.

You can read more about this story here and here.

Read: Joel on Software

Paper thin batteries!

Post ImageLike everyone else, I have far too many battery powered devices and not enough long lasting, reliable batteries! As a result, I am quite interested whenever I hear about some sort of advance in the battery market, like the new paper thin batteries developed by NEC:

NEC has debuted some ultra-thin and flexible quick charging batteries named ORB, for Organic Radical Battery. We’re having a hard time deciding what is the coolest part about these; their 0.3mm thickness that allows them to be flexible, or the fact that they can be recharged in about 30 seconds. The organic radical materials inside the battery are in an “electrolyte-permeated gel state,” which is supposedly about halfway between a solid and a liquid. This helps ions make a smooth move (no, the other one), reducing resistance, allowing the batteries to charge faster. 1 square centimeter will give you about 1 miliwatt hour.

These batteries will be useful for things like RFID tags, electronic paper, and wearable computers. If they can boost the power though, maybe they’d make their way into normal laptops and other small computing devices. Even something like the iPod Nano would benefit from super thin batteries!

Read: Engadget