Oklahoma’s Electric Cooperatives Electrify Remote Guatemalan Village

NRECA International provides reliable and affordable electricity to develop economic growth, improved healthcare and better education for rural populations around the world. At the state level, cooperatives like the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives are leading similar efforts to electrify countries in need.

But what do statewide cooperative associations and their members gain from committing time and resources to these volunteer projects? For insights, we turned to Chris Meyers, general manager and CEO of the OAEC, and Anna Politano, editor of Oklahoma Living magazine.

How and when did the OAEC get involved in the international electrification program?

Chris Meyers: In 2014, one of our board members, Jimmy Taylor, visited Guatemala and saw firsthand how these projects can improve the quality of life in a village. His enthusiasm was contagious. In 2016, we partnered with Missouri’s electrical cooperatives to electrify two villages in Bolivia. That enabled us to stick our toe in the water rather than dive in all by ourselves.

Anna Politano: The positive experience in Bolivia led the OAEC to start our own Oklahoma Energy Trails Foundation as a 501(c)(3) organization. In October 2017 we sent a team of volunteers to electrify a village in Guatemala – our first stand-alone project.

What does it mean to these villages when the lights go on for the first time?

AP: You see a sparkle in people’s eyes. It’s a promise of a better life. In Bolivia and Guatemala we saw children who couldn’t do homework after 6 p.m. because everything was dark. For them, electricity means education. It means security for people who’ve never felt safe leaving their homes at night. It means economic opportunity, being able to operate equipment that fosters economic growth.

What are the advantages for OAEC and your member cooperatives?

CM: Energy Trails builds unity because all of our cooperatives can send volunteers. There’s nothing to dislike about this. You’re helping people. Giving the gift of light takes us back to our roots, since our initial purpose nearly 80 years ago was to bring electricity to rural communities here in Oklahoma.

AP: One of the greatest benefits is the impact on our linemen volunteers who work on the projects. They form close bonds with the people they’re helping and return with new enthusiasm for their careers and a new perspective on life. They become better linemen, more engaged with their communities. The response from our co-op members has been overwhelmingly positive.

How do you finance Oklahoma Energy Trails?

AP: When you consider the costs of equipment ranging from posts and transformers to the internal wiring in each home, plus transportation, lodging and meals for volunteers, it adds up. The OAEC covers part of these costs from our own funds, but we also hold community fundraising events.

What advice would you give other statewide organizations thinking of getting involved?

AP: It’s vital to work closely with cooperatives throughout your state and get the message out through publications, videos and other communications – not just with the co-op leadership, but also with line workers, so they can get on board.

CM: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. NRECA International is really helpful and will tell you what you need to do. Start by partnering with a state that’s done it before. There are plenty of good, successful models if you look around and ask a few questions. Talk to us. We love to share.

CHRIS MEYERS is general manager and CEO of the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives..

ANNA POLITANO is the editor of the OAEC’s Oklahoma Living magazine. .