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Electrifying Bolivia With Co-op Know-how

Using the business model of America’s electric cooperatives as a starting point, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) International Program helps communities throughout the world.

One especially inspiring example is the task of bringing electricity to more of the citizens of Bolivia, a country that sprawls across 424,000 square miles of high peaks and valleys in the Andes Mountains in South America.

Dan Waddle, NRECA International Regional Director for Latin America, says, “We’ve been working in Bolivia since the late 1960s. We helped initiate a cooperative in Santa Cruz that may now be the largest electric co-op in the world. With 260,000 members, the co-op serves the city of Santa Cruz as well as five isolated generation and distribution systems out in the rest of the department, a geographic and political area that is comparable to an American state.”

In the early 1970s, Rural Electrification Phase One expanded the electric distribution systems in the three cities of Santa Cruz, Sucre, and Cochabamba.

Phase Two established new electric co-ops in the Altiplano area, a 13,000-foot-high plain in Bolivia near Peru’s Lake Titicaca. Phase Two also brought electricity to parts of a vast agricultural valley that stretches from north of La Paz, at an elevation of 16,000 feet, eastward to the beginning of the Amazon River basin at an elevation of about 5,000 feet.

The third program, Electrification for Sustainable Development, included electrification activities in many different parts of the country, from smaller cities to rural areas.

Waddle says, “Building on the success of Phase One, during the 1990s the new program expanded the rural distribution system in and around Cochabamba. In the town of Riberalta, in the northernmost area of Bolivia, a biomass generation system was installed. Using Brazil nut shells, this power plant generates 1-megawatt capacity while using a locally available and environmentally responsible fuel source.

“Since 1998, bringing electricity to more areas of Bolivia has taken a different course,” Waddle continues.

A USAID project is focused on expanding the distribution system in the Yungas area. A new United States Department of Agriculture program provides a unique financial boost: donated American wheat arrives in Bolivia where it is sold to local millers, who in turn sell the processed grain. The proceeds from those sales are being used to finance electrification projects in Potosi, as well as to pay the salaries of people who can provide technical assistance in Beni.

Colin Jack, an electrical engineer with 20 years’ experience working for a Utah cooperative, notes that construction is quite different in Bolivia.

“In America, a crew of two guys and an equipment truck might set eight to 10 poles in a day,” Jack says. “But in Bolivia, a crew is a supervisor and 10 or 12 laborers, who would set just four poles in one day.”

Jack, as well as team leader Fernando Mercado, a Bolivian engineer who’s been involved with NRECA projects since 1993 and recently returned from the U.S. where he earned his Master’s in electrical engineering, work with 15 Bolivians. Together, they manage projects from inception through the procurement of materials, construction, and operation.

In both Beni and Potosi, NRECA International staff and local experts work not just on the technical and engineering details, but also strengthen the administrative, commercial, and maintenance skills of the workers at the small cooperatives operating in various parts of the region.

In the Chapare region, a tropical area of Bolivia where coca has been a mainstay of the local economy, expanding the electric distribution system is part of an effort to provide the modern infrastructure for other kinds of businesses to provide an alternative to the drug trade.

Waddle notes that the economic impact of electrification projects often goes beyond the immediate improvement in the lives of the people getting the electricity.

“In many cases, these projects also help support the U.S. economy because of the need to purchase goods and services from U.S. companies.”

Waddle says, “Electrification projects are also extremely important within these communities because they generate a tremendous amount of goodwill toward Americans. Bolivians appreciate our work and become friends with us for life.”

To find out more about the project in Bolivia, log on to, look under International Ltd., then click on Projects by Country/Region.

Next month: Solutions for global electrification

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