Ted Case headshot

I’ve written extensively about the days the lights came on in rural America in my two books on rural electrification. As it turns out, I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Yes, I interviewed people who remembered vividly when power came to their farms in the 1930s. They spoke about the hardship before electricity and the painful wait to get it.

Yet, I never fully appreciated their words until last month when Oregon electric cooperatives, working with NRECA International, sent a crew of lineworkers to electrify the small village of Ventura, Guatemala—a rugged, bone-dry place where villagers live a life of subsistence working in the coffee fields. Their isolation makes it all but certain their government will never provide electricity to them.

That job was left to us. Oregon co-ops decided to undertake an international rural electrification project in 2019, a big commitment for our small statewide. We had to fundraise and get a crew of lineworkers to volunteer to spend 2 weeks away from their families.

After the pandemic canceled our first project, I doubted we could pull it off. But the plan came together. We assembled a 10-man crew, none of whom spoke much Spanish. Throughout long, hot days, these men—who are no less than heroes—befriended the villagers and each other, building the infrastructure with little of the equipment they rely on in America.

Toward the end of the project, I traveled there with a small group of co-op leaders and partners, bringing along my Spanish-speaking teenage daughter to help translate, participate in a service project and celebrate this feat of engineering.

During a village tour, we visited the home of an incredibly gracious woman who makes less money each day in the coffee fields than my daughter spends daily on a Starbucks latte. The crew was prepared to energize her home, which has dirt floors and no doors, but is now wired with 4 lightbulbs and 2 wall fixtures.

As she gave us a tour, there was a sense of anticipation. My daughter asked the woman what she looked forward to most about having electricity. She wasn’t sure, she said, adding with raw emotion, “I’ve been waiting for it for so long.”

Then, the breaker was flipped. We watched her and her 2 children stare at an illuminated lightbulb as if it were some magical beacon.

I now understood what others had been telling me. This woman may not know all the ways electricity will transform her family’s life. That will come soon. But in that moment, which my daughter and I will never forget, we knew one thing about this proud woman in a remote village, long ago forgotten: Her wait was over.

Executive Director Ted Case