Texas Linemen Bring Power to Rural Bolivia

December 18, 2017

Chase Noland and Brody Weems had dreamed of someday helping the less fortunate in a far-off land, but with families at home and demands at work, the United Cooperative Services linemen never expected to actually get the chance.

That changed last year when five Texas electric cooperatives teamed up with Mid-South Synergy and NRECA International. The linemen’s work and their dreams finally crossed paths.

In November, the two traveled nearly 3,700 miles with 15 other volunteers representing six Texas electric cooperatives to the Pando region of Bolivia. There the group worked to bring electricity to three small villages, bringing light to 130 families, three schools and a clinic. Pando is one of the poorest regions in the country; some 56,000 of its 110,000 inhabitants live without electricity.

“The combined efforts of Mid-South Synergy, NRECA International, other electric cooperatives and trusted vendors have made the mission of electrifying Bolivia possible,” said Kerry Kelton, Mid-South general manager. “Everyone at Mid-South Synergy feels a special level of fulfillment when the lights come on in another country, none more than the crews that work so hard building the lines that bring the power of light.”

Upon arrival in the city of Cobija, the Texas team was met by local press and the secretary to the governor of Pando. Mid-South Synergy VP of Operations Bo Williams spoke with the press and greeted everyone on behalf of Texas before the crew journeyed to the remote town of Puerto Rico, where they based their operations.

“When we got there, we had the first bath we’d had since we left, and it was cold water,” Noland said of the trying conditions. “I mean, it was cold cold. Then, after you get out of the cold shower, before you hit the bed, you’re already hot and sticky from humidity.”

But, Weems said, “Overall, we had it good compared to what a lot of people there slept in, so I have no complaints.”

The team spent time working in three villages, installing infrastructure, making repairs and meeting the locals. Near the end of the trip, the team gathered with locals under the roof of a pavilion in the village of San Antonio del Matty. Government officials gave speeches of gratitude to the volunteers. And children performed dances, dressing up in the linemen’s co-op shirts and hardhats; some donned pretend beards and emulated the linemen’s mannerisms while pretending to set poles and hang power lines.

As night fell, everyone held their breath and waited as Williams threw a 50-amp breaker, bringing light to the first home.

“Whenever they flipped that switch and that first area light came on, that was probably one of the coolest feelings I’ve ever witnessed in my whole life,” Noland said. “The kids were laughing and cheering. Everyone was staring at it when that one light came on. That’s when it hit us what we had just done. We felt good about what we were doing. And it was all worth it right then.”

Kyle Kasper and Jeremy Lynch represented Bluebonnet EC on the trip.

“They’re building power lines in Bolivia essentially the same way linemen built them in rural areas of the United States, including Central Texas, more than 75 years ago,” said Matt Bentke, Bluebonnet’s general manager. “I’m certain the experience will be as rewarding for Kyle, Jeremy and the region’s residents as it was for the linemen and residents of our communities here back in the 1940s.”

Bret Turnbow, Chris Hammonds and Ben DeRemer of CoServ; Chris Allen and Kirby Dawson of Bartlett EC; photographer Eric Hubbard, Clayten Owens and Jared Anderson of Mid-South; and Marshall Verette, Andy Ridge and Matthew Howell of Pedernales EC also made the trip.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Turnbow said. “It was a wonderful experience.”