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Lighting The World

Nearly two billion people in rural areas worldwide do not have access to electricity.

For Americans, surrounded by computers, televisions, and other commonplace electrical devices, it’s easy to think that planet Earth is one big technologically connected community. But it’s not.

Many parts of the world face conditions similar to those in the United States 70 years ago, when electricity was available in cities but not rural areas.

In this hemisphere, 73 percent of the rural population of Latin America is without access to electricity. On more distant continents, 81 percent of Asia’s rural population doesn’t have access to electricity. In sub-Saharan Africa, 96 percent of rural residents have no electricity.

America’s National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), through two international programs, is putting decades of experience to use to help people around the globe bring the benefits of electricity to rural areas. NRECA International Ltd. and NRECA International Foundation provide advice and technical know-how, from financing to engineering and everything in between.

Vivek Talvadkar, senior vice president of NRECA International Programs, says, “I remember when electricity came to my grandparents’ village of Goa, India—what a difference it made in the lives of the village’s 1,000 people! Income in an electrified village is 65 percent higher than in a non-electrified village. Crop yields increase by about 24 percent when electricity is available to power pumps for water.

“But electricity isn’t just about economic factors,” Talvadkar continues. “When electricity is available, medical care improves, reducing infant mortality by about 35 percent. There is also a very good correlation between having electricity and increased school enrollment among children, and increased literacy among the entire population. The availability of electricity also offers women more opportunities for personal growth, providing more work choices and better health care.”

Yet the circumstances and arguments against providing electricity to rural areas on other continents are remarkably similar to those in America. In many parts of the world, government-operated electric utilities confine their service areas to densely populated local communities; for-profit investor-owned utilities see no way to make a profit running electric lines over difficult terrain to sparsely populated areas.

Social and political issues make the struggle to bring electricity to rural areas in other parts of the world even more difficult. In many countries, there simply is no tradition of self-help, no experience with self-government, no tradition of cooperation to achieve a goal. A dismaying array of financial problems, such as lack of capital and a poor understanding of even basic accounting procedures, add more barriers. Circumstances vary so widely, NRECA’s International Division has adopted the slogan “Electrifying the world…one village at a time.”

NRECA’s international programs rely on paid staff, as well as hundreds of American volunteers, to customize rural electrification projects around the globe. Since 1962, NRECA’s programs have assisted residents in 35 countries, providing electricity for 70 million people.

Talvadkar says, “In America in 1935, only 12 percent of the U.S. was electrified, and it took another 35 years for President Franklin Roosevelt’s idea of nationwide access to electricity to be achieved. America’s rural electric co-ops serve millions of consumers—but with two billion potential electricity users spread across five continents, global electrification will take much longer to achieve.”

Some experts believe a target date of the year 2050 for global electrification is achievable. The next two columns will explore efforts to reach the goal of global electrification.

To find out more about NRECA’s international projects, visit this Web site: www.nrecainternational.org

Next month: bringing electricity to a rural village

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