Bolivia, situated in the heart of South America, is as large as the combined states of California and Texas. It is home to approximately 10 million people and has a rich and diverse culture. Six members of NRECA’s national board of directors and three NRECA employees traveled to Bolivia from November 10 to 18, 2012, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Cooperativa Rural de Electrificación (CRE), the largest rural electric cooperative in the Western Hemisphere, which provides electric service to the city of Santa Cruz, as well as to five isolated grid systems in Santa Cruz Department. Members of the International Board Committee were Ron Schwartau, Kerry Kelton, Eston Glover, Meera Kohler and Bryan Wolfe, joined by board member David Spradlin and NRECA staff Dan Waddle, Abbie Laugtag and Fernando Mercado.
CRE held its celebration on Wednesday, November 14, during which the delegation attended a commemorative Mass at the Santa Cruz Cathedral, followed by a public event in the CRE Courtyard of Light; all capped by a gala dinner event attended by the governor and the mayor of Santa Cruz, past CRE board presidents, civic leaders and local dignitaries. Representatives from CRE’s U.S. Sister Cooperative, Blue Ridge EMC (Lenoir, NC) including President Kenny Green, CEO Doug Johnson and COO Lee Layton, were also in attendance. Blue Ridge EMC has been CRE’s Sister Cooperative since its early days 50 years ago.
NRECA has supported CRE from the early years of the NRECA International Program history. When NRECA first began to work in Bolivia in the early 1960s, less than 15% of the population had access to electricity, and rural electrification rates were even lower. Shortly after CRE was formed in 1962, an NRECA delegation visited Santa Cruz and began a program of assistance to provide training and technical assistance, and eventually expand CRE’s service territory. This initial program began a friendship between NRECA and CRE that has now lasted for more than five decades.
The recent NRECA delegation had the opportunity to meet with the first vice-president of the CRE Board in the CRE boardroom. Luis Ruben Terrazas recounted a powerful story regarding the difficulties CRE faced when it was formed in 1962. Prior to that year, the national government owned and operated a small, isolated power plant in Santa Cruz with a very limited distribution grid that provided power only to the city center. The generation plant provided intermittent service, and the government was not able or willing to expand service coverage. The citizens of Santa Cruz formed CRE in an effort to assume responsibility for power generation, distribution and future expansion of service to all residents of the city.
However, the national government was opposed to CRE’s formation; it went so far as to expel the first NRECA advisor to CRE, Cecil Viverette from Blue Ridge. With the urging of Clyde Ellis, the then NRECA general manager, the U.S. government successfully negotiated with the Bolivian government to allow CRE to assume responsibility for distribution of electric energy, and sponsored a program to expand service coverage to the entire city. In the words of CRE’s vice president, “If it were not for NRECA, CRE would not exist today!” CRE now serves more than 450,000 members throughout Santa Cruz Department, connecting more than 25,000 new members each year and managing a team of highly qualified engineers, linemen, member service personnel and administrative staff with software and tools that would be the envy of many U.S. cooperatives.
The NRECA team also visited project areas in the Valles Altos of Cochabamba; the Valles Cruceños in Santa Cruz; and the Misiones region, also in Santa Cruz, where NRECA has co-financed electrification projects in the past with CRE and other local partners. Team members saw firsthand the benefits these important projects yielded for community members in rural areas that formerly suffered from costly and intermittent electric service, all of whom now enjoy affordable 24-hour service along with the benefits that reliable energy brings.