Line crews clear a path for power lines in a densely forested area of Bolivia. Credit: Paul Dow, Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives

A crew of transmission line workers from Illinois electric cooperatives recently found themselves on a relatively ordinary project under circumstances that were anything but.

The 12 linemen spent three weeks in March building out a power distribution network in a rural area. But instead of running lines across the corn fields of central Illinois, this time the crew was electrifying homes in a mountainous part of Bolivia that had never before had access to the grid.

The trip was part of the annual international volunteer effort coordinated by the international arm of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. It’s a way for rural cooperatives to support their counterparts in underserved parts of the world, while also helping the roughly 1.2 billion people worldwide who do not have modern energy access. Over the past 50 years, NRECA says its trips abroad have helped to bring electricity to more than 120 million people in 43 developing countries.

For the linemen who participate, the trips can serve as a visceral reminder of the kind of impact their work can have on the lives of others. Upon returning, they speak of a broadened perspective and a renewed sense of purpose in working to harden and modernize their home country’s grid.

“Our guys spent three weeks down there, and they came away with one of the great experiences of their life,” Phil Carson, president of the NRECA board, says of the Bolivia trip, which was also sponsored by the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC).

Making a connection

Roughly 60 percent of Bolivians live below the national poverty line, making it the poorest country in South America. In rural areas, as many as three out of four live in poverty, and nearly 30 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

U.S. electric cooperatives have a long history of working in the country. In 1962, NRECA helped establish Bolivia’s own rural electric cooperative, Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE). Today, CRE is the world’s largest electric co-op, serving more than 500,000 members.

Together with CRE, Illinois linemen built nearly 30 kilometers of power lines, installed multiple transformers and electrified 62 households, two schools and a facility for persons with physical disabilities, according to AIEC. The project spanned across four remote villages in eastern Bolivia: La Coca, La Negra, Laja and Mono.

The work wasn’t always easy, recalls participant Tim Baker, an area serviceman at Corn Belt Energy, a cooperative based in Bloomington, Illinois. Apart from the high elevations and rugged terrain, there was also a language barrier since the Illinois crew spoke very little Spanish and the Bolivian linemen spoke very little English.

“There was a lot of charades going on,” Baker says. Despite the obstacles, Baker says the two crews bonded throughout their work together and still keep in touch via Facebook.

Bret Richards, a construction foreman also with Corn Belt Energy, was another of the 12 linemen to visit Bolivia. He recalls the gratitude of the locals who “[had] never seen a light bulb in their home” getting electricity for the first time. Previously, teachers at the village schools would walk several miles to charge their laptops, Richards says, and they would use them sparingly to avoid draining the battery.

“The kids were happy they could do their homework [by electric light] instead of having to do their homework by the candle,” Richard says. “When the wind was blowing too hard it would blow the candle out and they couldn’t do their homework.”

The trip culminated in a celebration on March 30, in which the newly installed lights were illuminated for the first time. The event attracted the local mayor, CRE board members, TV reporters and others, the linemen recall. Songs were sung, a soccer ball was kicked around and some tears were shed.

“It was almost as if the President of the United States came to town,” Richards says of the festivities.

Grid modernization and outage response

Rural Bolivia is a far cry from Bloomington, but the returned Corn Belt linemen say their time abroad has shaped how they approach their work and life back home.

“We’re pretty blessed with what we have in the U.S., and you really realize it when you do a project like that,” says Baker, who has also done service trips to restore power in areas hit by hurricanes or other natural disasters.

Grid modernization efforts in recent years have improved power companies’ responses to outages, Baker says. In 2008, Corn Belt finished a multi-year installation of digital smart meters for all its members. In 2013, it launched SmartHub, an online platform that lets members view their energy usage data by the hour.

These improvements and others enable Baker and his colleagues to instantly look up a member’s usage history and help them strategize how and where they might curb energy consumption. An app directs Baker to outages before dispatch can even call to alert him, he says. And when he has to re-energize a faulty line, he can digitally ping customers’ meters to ensure that power has been restored, instead of waiting to see if anyone calls to complain about a continued outage.

“It makes it a whole lot faster,” Baker says. “It comes down to better service for our members.”

If there is a downside to the improved grid infrastructure in Illinois and beyond, it’s that people sometimes take the good service for granted.

“People get pretty upset if the lights just blink now,” Baker says. “Now there’s a little bitty glitch in the system and it’s the end of the world.”

Both he and Richards compared that reaction to the villagers in Bolivia who appeared to be happy despite living with far less than what many have in the U.S.

Asked if he would do another trip like it again, Richards was quick to reply: “I’d go back tomorrow … It’s very gratifying to see people that happy and generous. It was very moving.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.