Eighty years ago, America’s rural communities were at the bottom of the energy ladder. Country folks with no access to electricity were on the wrong side of a huge energy divide from the city folks connected to a reliable power grid. Today, thanks to electric cooperatives, people in rural communities in Kentucky and throughout the United States enjoy all the good things electricity can provide.
But around the globe, rural-urban energy divides are still a serious problem: 1.4 billion people—about one-fifth of the world’s population—have no access to modern power systems.
Without electricity, people in these communities have no refrigeration to keep food safe. No lights, no computers in school classrooms. No equipment to process water for safe drinking supplies or at sewage treatment plants. No high-tech lifesaving devices in hospitals.
A better life with power
People in the countries perched at the top of the energy ladder—already enjoying all the benefits of electrification—spend a lot of time in noisy political debates, asking questions about how every human action affects the environment. Such discussions seem completely off target to people elsewhere in the world.
In rural Africa and remote areas of Asia, citizens in the poorest regions are asking a much more basic question: How soon can we get electricity?
These citizens and their governments are not worried so much about “going green” or “sustainable practices.” They’re just trying to figure out how to use what little money they have to build up a functioning electricity network in the shortest time possible.
New future for a proven idea
Extending power lines into rural areas from electrified cities isn’t typically a workable option in many parts of the world.
Foreign visitors to crowded cities in the poorest countries see familiar-looking poles, wires, and transformers typical of a modern nation’s power grid—and don’t realize how unreliable the service is. Rolling blackouts, brownouts, and unpredictable power surges already stress these grids. They cannot be upgraded fast enough to meet the rapidly increasing demand within the city limits, and cannot reasonably be extended to provide service in rural areas.
While faraway policy experts keep on talking and arguing, for many rural communities the first step up the energy ladder is to adapt the American idea of electric cooperatives to local conditions. For these folks, working together to build the first local electric power grids is a big step toward a better life.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE FROM A NEW COUNTRY
Since 1962, experts from NRECA International (an affiliate of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) have helped people in more than 40 nations develop their own electricity systems. Robert Dalton, NRECA International’s construction manager, is working with the people in the market towns Yei, Kapoeta, and Maridi in South Sudan, which will become an independent nation in July. The new country is about six times the size of Kentucky, yet has less than 30 (yes, only 30) miles of paved roads. Here are his comments from a late-night e-mail earlier this spring:
“We are witnessing the birth of a nation, one which has no existing power infrastructure. Actually, no infrastructure at all. Think dirt roads, hand pump wells, and outhouses.
“In the three towns’ small utility systems that NRECA Int’l has helped local people build here since 2005, generation is by diesel fuel. In the future, hydro or some other less costly generation will be used. At this time, there are no other options to cost-effectively generate power for economic growth. Neither sun nor wind can be used as a sufficient and stable source of power here.
“The size of our generators might power a single American Walmart store. Utility power here in Maridi has been from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight since late December 2010. As of the 23rd of this month (February 2011), we will operate continuously from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. Please understand, these folks have lived…forever…without power. For them, electricity, even for a few hours a day, constitutes a miracle.
“Cities and towns in South Sudan desperately need power to fuel economic growth. Not the growth we think of, but the economic micro growth that comes from water from wells instead of muddy streams, refrigeration for cool drinks and medicines, or a light in a hospital surgery room. One day this will turn to lights in a primary school, giving a child the chance to see a teaching video, or a high school student the opportunity to see how a copier or a computer can make life more abundant. Then, in a few more years, a college student can print out a report rather than hand write it. In short, what we call the basic needs of life will be the economic growth of this nation.
“Security lighting has already expanded opportunities to many small shops. Street food vendors and cell phone charging booths are operational after dark now. Prior to this, vendors went home at sunset.
“A water treatment plant with local water supply points was completed last year. Soon the water system will allow private connections to hotels, restaurants, and businesses whose customers require water for sanitation, flush toilets, and bathing. Later, some homes will be connected and water-borne sicknesses will become a thing of the past.
“Due to water and electricity now being available, Maridi, already known for its agriculture, especially mangoes, has attracted investors interested in building a fruit processing plant. In the past, mangoes and other fruits rotted on the ground before they could travel the bad roads to a market. If the processing plant comes here, these farmers will have a local outlet for their produce.
“We build in these towns as a small step to the future of the country, creating an electrical load that one day will be worthy of the investment required to build a national grid.
“In Maridi, the future is getting brighter.”
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: POWER FOR VILLAGES
To learn how America’s electric co-ops are helping villagers in other parts of the world set up their own rural electric systems, go to Power for villages.