Op-ed: Bringing the Miracle of Electricity to Bolivia

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Energy Fairness board member,  Shawn Taylor, recounts his trip with NRECA International (an affiliate of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association) to electrify a rural Bolivian village.  As author Ted Case notes in his book Power Plays, President Kennedy put such stock in bringing electricity to the developing world that it was the only meeting he took during the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.


In December 2018, I was fortunate to travel to rural Bolivia to witness people getting electricity for the first time!  It was like traveling back to rural Wyoming over 75 years ago and witnessing farmers and ranchers flipping the switch and experiencing the miracle of light.  You might think “miracle” is too dramatic, but when I saw the faces of the people whose lives were about to change, I could think of no other word.

My trip lasted a week, but the planning that goes into something like this was years in the making. The purpose of the project was to electrify half of the rural community of Chapisirca.

Chapisirca sits in the sky at about 12,000 feet above sea level and is two hours on a scary dirt road from the nearest metropolitan city of Cochabamba.  The other half of the village was electrified last year in a similar project, also sponsored by NRECA International.

Just getting to Chapisirca was a challenge. Having flown overnight from Miami to La Paz, we could feel the effects of being at 12,000 feet, especially my traveling partners from Missouri and D.C.  From there, we flew to Cochabamba and met our driver Javier.  I prefer to think of Javier as a Sherpa because he took care of us, getting our gear, bedding, and food up the mountain safely (see scary dirt road above) with a smile on his face and gratitude in his heart.

The crew told us that the day before they got there, the local villagers dug about 100 postholes, and the anchor holes were dug by hand!  When the crew arrived, they set all the poles the old-fashioned way, with ropes and a lot of manpower.  The locals, including young kids, teenagers, and older men, kicked in to help.  It was amazing to witness.

Our quarters were in the half of the village that already had power. We finished the project, had dinner, went outside, and played soccer with the kids under the lights!  That wasn’t even possible a year earlier.  Needless to say, the kids smoked the flatlanders.

The next day was “inauguration day” – the day the lights came on.   In the morning, I went for a hike up about 15,000 feet. It was an awesome sight.  I could see the poles, wires, and transformers for the entire village.  It was a great time to reflect on what we were doing there and how fortunate we are to live where we do.  On the way back, I saw a woman and her kids picking up cow dung, presumably for heat, and I thought to myself, “hopefully now that they have electricity, they won’t have to do that for much longer.”

President Kennedy signs orders forming the basis of the NRECA International program — Courtesy NRECA

At the inauguration celebration, there were speeches by the town elders, thanking the crew and everybody that made this happen, and by the foreman of the crew thanking the townspeople for the warmth, hospitality, and assistance in completing the project.  The speeches were short because we had to have translators, but they were heartfelt.  Before the ceremony, I gave the children small gifts like friendship bracelets, miniature soccer balls, pencils (they loved the pencils), and a few other things.  The crew also purchased school supplies that they presented. The kids and their parents had ear-to-ear grins the whole time.

After the celebration, we went back to our quarters, ate lunch, and packed, but still had to go back and turn the lights on, as we were waiting for the city utility folks to energize the lines. That took about an hour, and when we went back to where the celebration had taken place, nobody had left. They plugged in a stereo system that someone brought from Cochabamba, and they were hanging out listening to music using their new electricity! The lights came on in the town elder Segundo and his wife’s home, and the picture I got of his wife is priceless. It tells the whole story of what the NRECA International program is, why we were there.