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It’s nearly impossible for most Iowans to imagine what life would be like without electricity. However, millions of people across the world must navigate every day without the convenience of lights, air conditioning, refrigeration, electric ovens, clothes dryers and many other items we’ve come to take for granted. 

Linemen line up to help

There was a surplus of support for the Guatemala program from the start; 11 Iowa electric co-ops volunteered to send a lineman to be part of the project team. With four positions available, Mike Berkenpas (team leader) of North West Rural Electric Cooperative, Bob Ruby of Access Energy Cooperative, Mat Kilgore of Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative and Quentin Fisher of Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative were randomly selected for the project. They joined eight other linemen from Illinois and Wisconsin as part of the 16-day Partners for a Brighter Tomorrow National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International project.

“It’s hard to comprehend there are still millions of people in the world who don’t have electricity,” says Chuck Soderberg, executive vice president and general manager for the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives (IAEC). “Rural Iowa was at a similar point back in the 1930s. Thanks to the rural electrification movement, we’ve been blessed with safe, affordable and reliable electricity ever since. It will be a life-changing experience for the people in this region of Guatemala to have electricity for the first time in their lives.”

Conversations to work on an international project started a couple of years ago for IAEC and its member electric cooperatives. 

“Part of the challenge for any state wanting to be involved in an international project is a significant commitment – both from a personnel and financial standpoint,” Soderberg says. “Whoever sponsors the event also picks up the cost of the equipment.”

The Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives was also considering an international project, but the cost to be a sole sponsor was steep. In conversations with Iowa, a partnership developed and also brought Wisconsin into the fold. With a three-state coalition, instead of one state footing the entire project cost, three states would share the costs. 

“The poles are donated by a utility in Guatemala; however, the costs for the wires, equipment, airfare and other items necessary to bring the project to completion are the responsibility of sponsoring states,” Soderberg adds.

Cooperation among cooperatives

When an electric cooperative needs assistance, other cooperatives step up to the plate. Cooperation among cooperatives is one of the seven guiding principles for the locally owned and governed business entities, but it’s also the bedrock of the organizations. Finding the funding for the Partners for a Brighter Tomorrow project was no exception.

The National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC) was one organization that provided the trio of states with funding for the project. The total project cost was estimated to be approximately $165,000. The organization – created 50 years ago by electric cooperatives – provided a generous $70,000 for the project, plus $25,000 each for Iowa and Wisconsin because they were first-time participants of an international project. Several Iowa cooperatives contributed to the effort, and CoBank, a national cooperative bank, matched the electric cooperative donations. Thanks to these contributions, Iowa’s share of the project was fully funded. 

Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC, is a native Iowan and understands firsthand the long-term value of the international projects. By funneling contributions through NRECA International’s matching grants program, the funds create exponential benefits. Since becoming involved with NRECA International in 2012, CFC has contributed $1.25 million to projects that bring electricity to underserved regions of the world. 

“I have been with CFC for 37 years, and my first job was working for Nishnabotna Valley Rural Electric Cooperative in Harlan,” he says. 
“Working for a distribution co-op, you see the impact electricity has on people’s lives – even those who have had electricity for years and years. These projects are an opportunity to give back and to people who have so little.

“Electric cooperatives remember what it was like to bring electricity to rural areas. If we can be of assistance in helping to further the mission of electrification globally, we want
to be a part of the solution. When you consider the modest amount of money that can
be leveraged with on-the-ground volunteer personnel, the result is incredible.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series of Iowa’s role in bringing electricity to this region of Guatemala. In Part II of our series in December, we’ll introduce you to the Iowa linemen who worked on the project and learn about their experiences. Plus, Chuck Soderberg will describe what it was like to be at the lighting ceremony in Guatemala.  

Ann Thelen is the editor of Living with Energy in Iowa magazine.

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