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Building a Better W rld F

By Frank K. Gallant

or 70 years, the National Rural Electric Co- operative Association (NRECA) has repre- sented America’s electric co-ops, fi ghting to keep electricity affordable, reliable, and safe, and improve the rural quality of life. But over the past half-century, the scope of its work has reached far beyond U.S. borders. On Nov. 1, 1962, NRECA and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—then a relatively new federal agency set up “to assist people overseas struggling to make a better life” (and resist communist expansion)—formed a partnership to carry the successful U.S. electric cooperative model to distant lands. President John F. Kennedy wit- nessed the signing of the agreement where he stat- ed, “…this contract holds special promise for those countries which have realized only a small fraction of their energy potential.”

In the ensuing 50 years, with the support of more than 300 NRECA member co-ops, NRECA Inter- national Programs has spearheaded electrifi cation projects that have resulted in increased agricultural productivity, millions of new jobs, and enhanced quality of life for more than 100 million people in 40-plus nations.

“Building a better planet takes experience,” NRE- CA CEO Glenn English remarks. “And no group has more experience bringing low-cost power to far- fl ung communities than America’s electric co-ops.” One of the fi rst projects in the late 1960s took NRECA International Programs experts—and later volunteers from Lenoir, N.C.-based Blue Ridge Elec- tric Membership Corporation—to Santa Cruz, Boliv- ia, to form Cooperativa Rural de Electrifi cation Ltda. CRE, as it is known, grew rapidly and has emerged as the world’s largest electric co-op, with more than 450,000 members. NRECA International Programs remains in Bolivia and is in talks with Cochabamba Power and Light Company about line extension pro- posals to irrigate the isolated Cochabamba Valleys region. To date, at least 25 percent of the Bolivian distribution system development has been support- ed by NRECA International Programs funding and expertise.

As NRECA International Programs began branch- ing out, it adopted a slogan: “Electrifying the world . . . one village at a time.” A 1977 pilot study in Ban- gladesh led to the establishment of 70 co-ops that now distribute power to 45 million rural residents. When an NRECA International Programs team ar- rived in the Philippines 40 years ago, 80 percent of the population lived in rural areas with less than 10 percent receiving central station electric service. To- day, 78 percent of the South Pacifi c nation’s dwell- ings have power, and 119 rural co-ops now serve 40 million consumers.


A number of other projects have been equally suc- cessful, points out Dan Waddle, senior vice president of NRECA International Programs. “The four elec- tric co-ops in Costa Rica represent approximately 15 percent of the total electric distribution market and cover roughly 40 percent of rural areas in that coun- try. They are completely self-sustaining and have ex- panded the scope and range of their offerings. Costa Ricans are gung ho for democracy, so they really em- brace co-ops.”

The four Costa Rican organizations, along with co-ops and rural municipal utilities in Chile, Brazil, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala, make up the Smart Grid Alliance, which aims to use large commercial and industrial accounts to demon- strate advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). AMI is a comprehensive set of technologies and software applications that combine two-way communications with smart meters to provide electric utilities—using frequent meter reads—with near real-time oversight of system operations. Through the alliance, Ameri- can co-ops will be able to share smart grid technol- ogy, experiences, and best practices. “It’s a rare opportunity for these participants,” Waddle asserts. “They don’t have access to distri- bution automation technology like we do. They’re small, they’re rural, and vendors don’t visit them very often except to sell products. They seldom have the opportunity for real exchange.”

Leading the charge from Virginia Waddle leads a staff of 14 from NRECA’s head- quarters in Arlington, Va. Five reside in the countries they are responsible for: Guatemala, Bolivia/Domin- ican Republic, Haiti, South Sudan, and Bangladesh. NRECA International Programs is made up of two arms. NRECA International Foundation, a reg- istered charitable 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1985, partners with electric co-ops in the United States to provide funding, equipment, and volun- teer personnel to assist foreign electric co-ops. Mean- while, NRECA International, Ltd., provides guidance to newly formed co-ops during the initial stages of operation and offers technical help to those that have difficulties achieving sustainable operation. The organization operates offi ces in nine countries, with electrifi cation projects in 13: Bangladesh, Boliv- ia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen. NRECA International Foundation recruits co-op volunteers—usually line technicians, CEOs, and en- gineering managers—to send on two- to three-week assignments. While overseas, line technicians build distribution systems, wire houses, and train native line crews to work more productively and safely. Co-op managers educate administrators and board members, while engineers guide their counterparts in line design and substation construction and

The road ahead

As NRECA International Programs embarks on its next 50 years, an enormous new mission has arisen in South Asia and Africa.

“We’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit,”

Waddle comments. “For example, rural Bangladesh- is live in densely packed villages, where suffi cient rev- enue exists per mile of line to support a utility. That’s not the case elsewhere. In Uganda, only 9 percent of the population has access to electricity, and in rural areas, it’s much lower. On top of that, few people have the ability to pay for electricity.” But political strife more than infrastructure hard- ships makes Third World electrifi cation increasingly diffi cult.

“Our biggest concern right now is security, and the safety of our personnel. Afghanistan, South Sudan, Uganda, and Pakistan all experience severe peace- and-order problems,” Waddle says.

Of course, social upheaval, economic instability, and physical danger have always lurked on the pe- riphery of NRECA International Programs endeav- ors. But its dedicated contingent has never let that get in the way. They’ve negotiated with government offi cials, unearthed fi nancial resources, and made sure indigenous workers and American electric co- op volunteers stay safe. As he looks fi ve years out, Waddle expects that Af- rica and South Asia will occupy much of his section’s attention. Pakistani utilities, he explains, “must im- prove rural line design and construction standards, and invest in new technology. Most Pakistanis have central station power, but the distribution system is old and outdated.”


Africa likely will present the greatest challenge of “The needs on the continent are immense, and the

situation is grim. There are two key issues: food secu- rity and water. Electricity plays a big role in both.” OL

Source: Rural Electric (RE) Magazine

Frank Gallant writes on electric cooperative issues for the National Rural Elec- tric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service organization for the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profi t electric cooperatives.

Photo couresty Karen Kaley/Cotton Electric Co-op

NRECA International Programs celebrates 50 years of lighting the globe maintenance.

In addition, NRECA International Foundation oversees four donation programs. Dozens of co-ops contribute monetarily, while others turn over used line trucks and distribution equipment. “Transformers and bucket trucks are especially valuable and are always in demand,” stresses Ingrid Hunsicker, NRECA International Foundation senior program manager. “Co-op employees can give to the Foundation through the United Co-op Appeal ‘Gift of Light’ program, an annual workplace fundraising campaign handled by the Cooperative Development Foundation.”

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