- Piper Foster
90 years ago, 9 out of 10 US homes had no electricity
This stamp manifests profound progress for America. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Rural Electrification Administration, which handled one of our country’s most ambitious goals for advancement in 1936. My company, 60Hertz Microgrids, works in electrification in emerging markets and rural places globally. So, I read between the lines of this page of history – or between the poles and wires, to adapt the metaphor – to view how rural electrification magnifies personal and community advancement, energy access, and reduced corruption.
When it comes to electrification, the business case to serve large geographies with few people has always been challenging. While microgrid developers in the Arctic, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and across Africa confront the problem today with new nuances, the American example from the 1930s offers germane parallels and lessons.
Running wooden distribution poles and wires across broad swaths of landscape, today, costs an average of $20,000 a mile in most parts of the United States. To pass this cost on to consumers would demand an expensive kWh to pay back this level of capital investment and make it worth doing. Yet Rural Electric Cooperative Boards rule under the mantra of ensuring their customers have the low-cost, reliable energy. Distributed microgrids can help according to energy access experts.
Why did the US establish the Rural Electrification Administration? In the America of 1933 that President Roosevelt governed, 9 out of 10 homes did not have power! Not even 100 years ago! According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), the political will to electrify vast regions of the US demanded mobilizing multiple institutions – from creating the Rural Electrification Administration, as this stamp commemorates, to developing new loan instruments still in use today to pay for the infrastructure, to launching the member-owner cooperative model also. Today Coops are at scale: there are more than 900 electric cooperatives in the country, organized under the NRECA.
In 17 years, the success was staggering: 90% of US Farms had received electricity. It was a war-on-energy-poverty before people had coined either term. It was significant before leaders or the public fully grasped what electricity would mean for efficiency, education, advancement and opportunity (let alone the internet!) Talk about a foresighted investment.
Today, America’s electric coops extends now internationally, through NRECA’s international work – sharing the coop model of rural electrification in more than 18 countries.