REC electrifies village in Bolivia

Michelle McConnaha reports for Ravalli Republic:

Against the odds, linemen from the Ravalli Electric Cooperative and other electric cooperatives from Montana brought electricity to a rural village in Bolivia last month.

In Pando (Northern region of Bolivia) in the village called Villa Cotoca, the Big Sky effort now provides electricity to the 38 homes and 150 people, including 30 kids in the village school for grades K-6.

Each student was awarded a computer through a government program they originally could not participate in due to no electricity. Also, two local stores recently opened and Pando governor’s office expects greater economic growth as result of electrification.

Ravalli Electric Co-op Manager of Operations Kyle Kearns served as the team leader to oversee and direct the installation. The International Project had 13 linemen and communication personnel from co-ops across Montana. The vast project spanned 11 kilometers (7 miles) and 91 power poles. The group’s duties were to prepare poles with hardware, set power poles, string and attach wire to poles leading to Villa Cotoca.

Electrification projects are selected and designed by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association International and electric co-ops from across the nation participate. In June, the Montana team learned they were tapped to serve several years earlier than expected and didn’t have much time to prepare. Fund raising was held at REC co-op events, sponsors and other electric co-ops contributed so REC felt little financial impact.

Kearns said his team took their own tools and climbing equipment, but lines and poles were provided. Travel delays for the team meant that the project began two-days behind schedule.

“By the time we got there we ended up with eight construction days [the original plan was for 10],” Kearns said. “We had quite a few different groups to work with.”

A local engineer could speak some English and two interpreters helped with communication. Bolivian construction crews set poles and cleared the right of way while local village crews cleared vines and trees. Only about half the poles needed had been set by the time the Montana crew arrived.

Heat was the biggest problem for Montana linemen who came from winter weather with snow as the trip was from Feb. 26 – March 14. Temperatures in Bolivia were in the high 90s with over 90% humidity. Kearns said it felt like 110 degrees and 100 degrees in the shade.

“One of the most important things I focused on was keeping the crew cool and hydrated,” Kearns said. “If they were up on a pole too long in the sun it really took a toll on their bodies and minds.”

With crew members feeling dizzy and nauseous they had to take breaks in the shade and each drink over 10 bottles of water a day.

To make up for the two-day late start, and not having all the poles installed and right of ways cleared, the Montana crew put in the extra effort of long days every day and they worked dawn-to-dusk the last day to complete the project.

“We had to adapt to what we had down there, I knew we came all this way with one job to do and I didn’t want to go home feeling defeated,” Kearns said. “I hate to lose, and I wanted to be able to walk away with a victory. [These guys] fought hard to get the job done and were extraordinary. They rallied together and took care of each other.”

REC Manager of Communications Melissa Greenwood traveled to Bolivia with the team, and State Communications Director Ryan Hall, to assist with documenting the project. Using photography, video, observation and interviews Greenwood brought home the message of success in Bolivia.

“This is the first time a group of all Montana linemen have done such a ground-breaking event,” Greenwood said. “We documented the project, the Montana linemen and villagers.”

She said part of the trip that impacted her the most was visiting the town’s school that was only 10 years old but in rough shape.

“The kids were happy as could be and excited to see new faces,” Greenwood said. “They were eager to talk to us, but I don’t know Spanish, so communication was challenging.”

The teachers were excited because the addition of electricity to the village meant that students would have computers and could do homework at night.

“The teachers were excited that their students could have more ways to communicate with people and learn more,” Greenwood said. “The teachers are hoping students growing up will have a better outlook on life and a better future ahead of them.”

The Montana crews lived in the third-world conditions of bamboo huts, no electricity, large insects and hot weather.

“The environment was hard, but the overall impact and what we accomplished made it a really neat experience,” Greenwood said. “It was not a luxury vacation.”

When the project was completed the crew and village held a lighting ceremony and one token light bulb was lit. The children smiled and danced. After the crew left, the community was connected to the ENDE-Cobija distribution system (local government utility) and every house will be wired for full-time electricity.

Kearns said the trip had a big impact on him.

“Just to see the happy villagers, the smiles on the kids and knowing we had contributed to life-change for them was a big deal,” Kearns said. “They made us necklaces and everything was an amazing experience. It was very rewarding.”

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