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Kentucky’s Light In The World

When Kentuckian Travis Housley went to the Philippine Islands five years ago he thought he’d be taking a break from his job as vice president of system operations for Big Rivers Electric Cooperative in Henderson.

After all, the trip took him 8,500 miles from home. And its purpose revolved around Housley’s other occupation – pastor of the Dawson Springs Primitive Baptist Church in Hopkins County.

But on the island of Mindanao, Brother Housley started talking with a local Philippine minister.

Pastor Ricardo Tabanyag Jr. had a dream of getting electricity to the poor villages in the area of Dongan Pekong. He hoped villagers could use that power to develop skills and economic opportunities that would see their struggling farming community through times of drought and starvation.

When the Filipino minister found out that the visiting American was an electrical engineer, their conversation quickly moved from dreams to details.

“Our first thought was to use a local resource, a mountain stream, for a small hydroelectric plant to generate electricity,” Housley recalls. “But after a year investigating various schemes whenever I had extra time, we realized it just wasn’t a practical solution. Mike Core, the CEO here at Big Rivers, suggested I get in touch with the International Programs at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association to see what other alternatives might work.”

The International Programs at NRECA was a logical place to turn for a solution. With more than 40 years’ experience helping adapt the American co-op model to local situations, it has brought electricity to communities in 65 countries.

In the meantime, Housley made other visits to the Philippines. On one of those trips he noticed a power line on the mountain slopes several miles from Dongan Pekong. He determined that the high-voltage line belonged to an existing co-op, the Davao del Sur Cooperative. In fact, in 1998 when Housley first got involved there were already 119 electric co-ops serving 5.9 million people in the Philippines, a legacy from initiatives started by President Kennedy in the 1960s.

“Unfortunately, Davao del Sur Co-op told me it wouldn’t be cost-effective to run a line extension to the village with so few potential customers–and I’m sure familiar with that,” Housley recalls. In Kentucky, Housley’s job includes the design, construction, and maintenance of the transmission system for Big Rivers Co-op.

So Housley had an idea of what he was up against, and what to do about it.
Housley and Core worked with NRECA to develop a sister cooperative relationship with Davao del Sur Cooperative, and put together a plan to bring electricity to the villages of Dongan Pekong.

Their efforts were aided by the fact that the Philippine co-ops have always been built using U.S. co-op specifications, so American materials fit into the Philippine system.

Housley explains, “We collected used, but still useful, materials from our member co-ops here in Kentucky and around the United States, and shipped them to Davao.”

Buford Coke, director of transportation for United Utility Supply Co-op based in Louisville, explains how such shipments happen: “With our fleet of 15 semi-tractors and 58 trailers we serve co-ops in 17 states east of the Mississippi River. After we deliver supplies, anywhere from Maine to Florida, we can pick up donated materials and bring them back to Kentucky.”

Since the trucks would be going along the same route anyway, there’s no charge for hauling the materials back to a central location.

Larry Hodge, materials supervisor at Nolin Rural Electric Cooperative in Elizabethtown, picks up the story from there.

Transformers, machine bolts, conductors, insulators, grounding materials–all the carefully labeled and packed donations are stored in the Elizabethtown warehouse, waiting for eventual shipment to the Philippines and other developing countries.

“The beauty of this is that instead of just handing somebody money, when we give them these things we’re helping them set up self-governing co-ops,” Hodge says. “They take ownership and, more important, they have pride in what they’re doing.”

When the donated materials reach the village, the local folks will have to invest some “sweat equity.” Which is to say they provide labor to refurbish old equipment, as well as clear the right-of-ways, and learn how to wire houses.

Part of what made this Kentucky-Philippine project successful is a system of matching American organizational skill with the widely diverse local conditions and traditions around the world. The system, called Project ShARE, has been developed over the decades by NRECA’s International Programs.

ShARE, which stands for Sharing America’s Rural Electrification, forms teams of Americans and people with local connections. Housley is the volunteer team leader for Project ShARE’s Philippine team, which includes paid staffers at NRECA’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, a local leader based in Manila, a general manager of the local Philippine co-op on Mindanao, and other people with local experience.

There are plenty of questions going back and forth among all those people because a key feature of Project ShARE work is tailoring the electricity plans to local needs.

“After we energized our first line in January 2001,” Housley says, “we began looking for more villages that wanted electricity.”

But money is an ever-present problem.

“We found a village of 30 homes that were still burning kerosene for lighting, even though they were quite close to the new electric line,” Housley says. “The villagers just couldn’t afford the initial wiring cost of 3,000 pesos per household, which works out to about 54 American dollars.”

During his most recent visit to Mindanao in February, Housley was able to put the finishing touches on a program that will loan each householder the money to make the initial connection, and pay it back gradually each time they pay their regular electric bill.

A key element in Project ShARE’s planning is asking villagers what they want to do with their new electricity. One village wants to use electricity to power a rice-milling machine. Other ideas include health clinics and job opportunities using sewing machines.

During a July 2002 visit to yet another mountainside village that will soon have electricity, Housley and a local farmer stood in his field overlooking the Pacific Ocean while they discussed the improvements electricity could bring.

“I’d mentioned several economic development ideas and we’d talked about the advantages of having electricity,” Housley recalls, “and then I asked the farmer “Which of those benefits most appeals to you?” He answered, ‘My children will be able to study their homework at night.'”

Improving education is often an important part of bringing electricity to rural villages. It’s an idea that Americans get enthusiastic about quickly. As this article goes to press, 4,000 pounds of kindergarten through eighth-grade textbooks are packed in the hold of a huge container ship on the way to Mindanao.

“We’ve recently had a book drive among Big Rivers employees for college-level books,” Housley says, “and we’ve sent 10 more boxes including English grammar and literature books. Soon we’re going to send out five more computers, too, for a teachers’ college in Mindanao.”

Housley and other ShARE Project coordinators bringing electricity to communities around the world believe in what they’re doing because they know their volunteer work doesn’t stop with turning the power on.

“In the future, we’ll keep adding connections,” Housley says, “but we’ll also keep working with the local folks to help them identify the needs of their communities. As long as we’ve got the resources here in the United States, we can help people turn their dreams into reality.”

How you can help Philippine co-ops

Donations are welcome for the Philippine electrification program, since one of the aims is to use the electricity to develop the local economy.

Travis Housley, volunteer team leader for Project ShARE’s Philippine team, says, “We need things such as electric tools and equipment–power tools, electric motors, pumps, electrical test equipment, welding machines, computers–any and all things that have the potential to help villagers develop ways to earn money within their communities.”

If you have items that you think would be useful, or for more information about the program, you may contact Travis Housley at Big Rivers Electric Cooperative by phone at (270) 827-2561.

If you’d rather send an e-mail, please put the words “Philippine Project” in the subject line, and send your e-mail to:

The project has 501(c)(3) tax status; your donations may qualify as tax-deductible charitable contributions.

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