As CEO of CFC and NCSC for 20 years, Sheldon Petersen spends approximately 180 days a year on the road. He meets with NRECA member co-ops around the country to share and discover ideas on how CFC can help them serve their members. An electric co-op veteran and a dedicated supporter of NRECA International, Sheldon added Guatemala to his travel schedule this summer to learn firsthand how lives can change through electrification. He visited for a week, starting in Guatemala City before moving up toward the Mexican border to see the impact of NRECA International on two villages that benefited from the volunteer work of Arkansas and Indiana co-ops three years ago.
Sheldon saw how access to electricity has changed the lives of the men, women and children he met and was struck by the meaningful differences that have been made. As a former manager of Rock County Electric Co-op (now Rock Energy Cooperative) in Wisconsin, he developed a deeper appreciation of the volunteer commitment to serving these rural communities that have no place else to turn to make their leaps into the 21st century.
Sheldon recently shared his thoughts on the trip and why he believes NRECA International’s work is important. Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Sheldon Petersen, CEO of CFC and NCSC
A: I was absolutely stunned at how much can be developed with a fairly modest investment. I saw how much can be accomplished and how meaningful those accomplishments are for the people we help. People need to know that when they make a contribution to the international program, it goes a long way, and it really can create significant benefits. The impact on people’s lives is even more dramatic when a power distribution system is built from scratch, like what was completed three years ago by electric co-ops from Arkansas and Indiana.
Q: What did you see and whom did you meet?
A: I saw homes that had light bulbs, microwave ovens, maybe a radio, refrigerator and a TV. In one home, the family was very proud of their electric corn mill that eliminates the need to grind corn by hand. That’s a reduction of five hours of work down to 15 minutes! The people I met were so excited and proud to have these few conveniences. And they are quite resourceful– another villager had an air compressor to do tire repair work, so in addition to improving quality of life, electricity also brings about business opportunities. These communities also have very industrious and hard-working people. It’s not uncommon for them to hike miles through mountains to work in coffee fields and then head back home for the evening. They take pride in what little they have, and take good care of it.
Q: How did electricity change the lives of the people you met?
A: There is a huge difference between what people had in urban and rural areas. Where I visited, the contributions of NRECA International and our co-ops were clear. Many homes still use traditional rock and concrete wood- fired stoves that are burning all the time. Just having less use of that means someone’s not breathing smoke all the time. I also asked one family about the affordability of electricity, and learned that they spend less on their electric bill than they did on candles to light their house. So for their household, it’s economically positive.
Q: What were your impressions about the impact our co-op volunteer linemen had on these communities?
A: I’ve always been impressed by what linemen can do. But I was positively amazed at what they did there with a limited amount of equipment and resources. Those mountainsides are so incredibly steep, and the volunteers didn’t have the benefit of line trucks to string the system. But they did, by hand. These linemen, and all the volunteers that travel for the NRECA International Foundation, donate their time and work in a very selfless fashion. That helps leverage the often limited resources available to help communities. Here’s a case where a lot was accomplished with a very modest investment.
Q: Why is it important for us to continue helping global communities gain access to electricity?
A: The need is so great. As electric co- ops, we’ve enjoyed enormous success, and this is an opportunity for us to share that success and make a truly significant impact. And I can assure you that CFC and NCSC have every intention to continue making contributions so that this work can continue.