spring, 13 volunteer linemen from seven North Carolina electric distribution
cooperatives spent nearly three weeks bringing power for the first time to 67
homes in the remote Bolivian farming community of Laphia, located 11,600 feet
above sea level. The “Brighter World Initiative”—a collaborative effort of
Raleigh-based North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives (statewide) and the
state’s 26 electric cooperatives, in conjunction with NRECA International—was
aided with $95,000 in combined International Projects Matching Grants provided
by CFC and NCSC.
“Cooperatives exist to make life better for others, and we’ve done that in North Carolina and beyond,” explains Alan Merck, COO of Blue Ridge Energy, a distribution cooperative based in Lenoir. “But there are so many people around the globe who do not have electricity—who still depend on kerosene lamps, lanterns and candles for lighting and woodstoves for cooking and have no refrigeration.”
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Although this was the first electrification
mission to another country for the North Carolina cooperatives as a group, it
was a return trip of sorts for Blue Ridge Energy, which partnered with NRECA
International in the early 1960s to electrify what was then the remote Santa
Cruz area of Bolivia. That undertaking created what is now the world’s largest
electric cooperative, CRE (Cooperativa Rural de Electrificacion), which serves
about 600,000 members.
The North Carolina lineworkers built about five
miles of infrastructure to connect the town to the main grid. The team also
wired the local school.
The region’s extremely steep terrain and
elevation presented challenges. Without access to bucket trucks and machinery,
line crews did much of the labor by hand, including lifting transformers and
dragging spans of wire up hills and through underbrush.
“It’s easy to take for granted the materials that make our daily jobs much easier,” remarks Tim Williamson, a lineman with Randolph Electric Membership Corporation, headquartered in Asheboro. “On this trip, we went back to our roots. We climbed poles with traditional gear and used pure manpower for pulling lines and installing transformers. The first day alone, we hauled about 8,000 feet of line through a ravine. You don’t realize how heavy that is until you don’t have a reel truck.”
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Villagers pitched in by stringing wire, digging
holes for poles and anchors, raising poles by hand and learning how to assemble
components. When the task was complete, the town thanked and honored the
American contingent with traditional red ponchos, wool hats and flowers.
Lineman Jody Keane, of Pee Dee Electric
Membership Corporation in Wadesboro, recalls the expressions of joy he
witnessed when the lights finally came on. “When we flipped the switch to the
school, the children ran around exploring. We could tell they were excited for
their future. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
According to Joe Brannan, executive vice
president and CEO of the North Carolina statewide, “Our efforts in Bolivia have
generated an even greater sense of pride of purpose among our employees and
members, and reinforced our dedication to service. We cannot thank CFC and NCSC
enough for their assistance that has forever changed the lives of Laphía
residents and our linemen volunteers.”
CFC and NCSC launched the matching grants in 2017,
with funds channeled exclusively through statewide associations that sponsor
overseas electrification projects through NRECA International. To date, 16
statewide organizations have or are slated to benefit.
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