Extended Family

By Magen Howard | RE Magazine
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For a half-century, rural electric systems overseas have benefited from relationships with electric co-ops across the United States

In 1962, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corporation in Lenoir, N.C., helped form Cooperativa Rural de Electrificaciòn (CRE) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. A year later, a formal covenant linked the two through what became known as the Sister Cooperative Partnership Program, where electric co-ops in the United States individually cement ties with a counterpart in a developing country.

Residents of Jalapa in Guatemala help move poles that line crews from Singing River Electric Power Association in Mississippi will use as part of a rural electrification project in the region. | Photo: NRECA International Foundation

Now, 50 years and a half-million members later, CRE can claim the title as the largest electric co-op in the world, and the association between the sister co-ops has flourished.

“CRE is truly a model of success,” says Doug Johnson, CEO of the Tar Heel State distribution co-op. “We’re proud to have been a part of that by demonstrating the cooperative difference and living out the cooperative principles.”

The Bolivian effort was aided by a November 1, 1962, agreement between NRECA and the U.S. Agency for International Development aimed at fostering goodwill by helping Third World countries provide rural residents with safe, reliable, and affordable electricity. Since then, NRECA, through its International Programs Division, has assisted with electrification programs that have resulted in increased agricultural productivity and millions of new jobs, as well as an enhanced quality of life for more than 100 million people in 40-plus nations. NRECA International presently has electrification projects under way in 13 countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen.

Under the original Sister Cooperative Partnership Program, a U.S. electric co-op furnished monetary support, equipment, volunteer labor, and management advice to a co-op in another corner of the world―notably, Bolivia, the Philippines, Guatemala, and Costa Rica―explains Ingrid Hunsicker, manager of the NRECA International Foundation, a registered charitable arm of NRECA International. “It emerged as a great way to tap the skills and technical savvy of roughly 70,000 electric cooperative employees across the United States and then apply those talents to electrification endeavors elsewhere.”

In the early days of the CRE-Blue Ridge EMC exchange, then-General Manager Cecil Viverette and others spent many hours in Santa Cruz, supplying expertise on everything from engineering and hiring to day-to-day management, finances, safety, and equipment operation.

“Some of my friends think I’m foolish, but I believe in helping others―particularly those who’ve never had a chance,” Viverette said after accepting a six-month assignment at CRE in 1963. “When these people are striving hard to help themselves and call for help, I cannot say ‘no.’ If the people of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, can get electric power, improve their economic position, and become a little like we are, I know the world will be made a little stronger.”

The groundwork laid decades ago was celebrated last year when Blue Ridge EMC leaders and NRECA board members visited CRE to help the co-op celebrate its golden anniversary. CRE staff has also journeyed to the United States for meetings at Blue Ridge EMC’s headquarters and NRECA.