Why Electrification Matters: Florida Co-op Linemen Change Lives in Guatemala

Episode ID S3E02
February 22, 2023

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of NRECA International, this episode of Power Plays features Florida co-op employees who helped the program to electrify a small village in Guatemala. Steve Rhodes, CEO from CHELCO, outlines the project’s origins and stunning logistics. Jason Price with CHELCO and David Lambert with Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. describe how they managed volcanic rock, rudimentary tools and a language barrier to complete a life-changing mission.


Jason Price: We didn't just go over there and build a line. We didn't go over there and just put bolts in holes and tie wire on a pole and turn a light switch on. We basically changed a generation. At the end of the day, saying that linework is just linework in this project, it wasn't just line work. We changed people's lives. We changed them for the better.

Teri Viswanath: That’s Jason Price, a journeyman lineman from CHELCO, an electric cooperative located in Florida’s Panhandle and serving about 61,000 members. Jason was part of something really special — the first team sent by our Florida co-ops to help NRECA International electrify a village in Guatemala.

Hello, I’m Teri Viswanath, the energy economist at CoBank and your co-host of Power Plays. I’m joined by my colleague and co-host, Tamra Reynolds, a managing director at CoBank who also had the privilege of joining those Florida co-ops at the tail-end of that electrification project.

Tamra Reynolds: Hi, Teri. That’s right. My colleague Doran Dennis and I flew into Guatemala City and then traveled by car for another 3 to 4 hours to Jalapa, which is in the center east part of the country. From Jalapa, we traveled each day with the Florida lineman to reach the rural village where they were working, which wasn’t really that far away in terms of mileage, but the roads were pretty rough so the trip took about 30 minutes, 40 minutes each way. Doran and I joined three other co-op leaders from Florida – Steve Rhodes with CHELCO, who we’ll hear from in a little bit, Kaitlyn Culpepper with Tri-County Electric and Lisa Johnson with Seminole. And we were supported by NRECA’s program manager Ingrid Hunsicker. After most of the hard work was complete, we celebrated the success of this project in Guatemala.

CoBank has long been a sponsor of NRECA’s International program, providing funding for more than a decade. We know that there is a link between electrification, improved quality of life and poverty reduction, which is why CoBank is so committed to the program and why Doran and I got the opportunity to see first-hand how our collective support makes a difference.

Teri Viswanath:  This is a special year for NRECA International. The organization is celebrating 60 years of humanitarian service. Since 1962, NRECA International has brought electricity to over 160 million people, helping to establish more than 250 electric utilities and electric cooperatives in 48 countries. We are truly proud of that effort. Which is why we thought the right “Valentine” program was to celebrate in that success. In this podcast, we follow our Florida co-ops on their first international volunteer international effort.

Let’s hear from Steve Rhodes, the CEO of CHELCO about how the Florida co-ops came together on this project. Steve is sort of an instigator here, playing an important role in planting the idea and getting other electric cooperatives excited about sending lineman, the financing, and the materials for this effort.  

Steve Rhodes: It goes back to my time as a CEO at a co-op in Indiana, Kosciusko REMC. Indiana cooperatives did an international project down in Guatemala back in 2012. We sent two linemen down to Guatemala as part of the Indiana group. Those two guys came back and they were just on fire and very passionate about the experience that they had in Guatemala. To tell you the truth, that rubbed off on me.

I had this idea in my head for quite some time about having the Florida cooperatives sponsor a trip to Guatemala an international project because Florida co-ops had never done that before. Back in 2017, I think it was the summer of 2017, I pitched the project to my fellow CEOs and got a lot of positive response immediately from that.

When I pitched that idea to my peers back in 2017, I actually showed them the video that was produced following the Indiana group traveling to Guatemala. I think that was impactful. In addition to that, I asked Chris Stevens from a co-op in Georgia to come down and speak at one of our CEO meetings that I was chairing. Chris has been involved a long time in International project and they've had several of them out of Georgia. Chris was very helpful.

Then, of course, I had NRECA International come down and speak to the group as well. Over the course of several meetings and several months, we continued to build on that enthusiasm until we reached the point where we had enough people and enough cooperatives interested to make the project viable. It took a while for us to bring that to fruition, but by late 2019, we were about ready to move on it.

But then COVID hit in 2020, and so the project was delayed over and over again until we just went, obviously, in December of '22. If you look at it, it was almost five years from the time we first talked about it until the time we actually went on the trip.

Tamra Reynolds: But it wasn’t just about convincing other co-op staff to provide manpower, there were also board conversations and member engagement that had to take place. Steve acknowledges this.

Steve Rhodes: I just really appreciate the support that my board gave from the very beginning on this project. Really, the support and participation from the other cooperatives in the state. If they didn't provide people for the project, others provided financial assistance. It just turned out to be a great effort by all of us. It's uplifting and just encouraging and a very rewarding project.

Teri Viswanath: The project leads for Guatemala was David Lambert. David heads member services for Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, whose service areas include Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Polk, and Sumter counties in Florida. David reached out directly to his members directly about this project.

David Lambert: When I started talking about Guatemala and showing them the pictures from the pre-trip, the members, they just wanted to help. Not only that they wanted to know if they could go down and build housing, help with the school. They were so proud, we've had nothing but positive, positive support for this project. Our members followed it every day as several of them donated their own money to buy toys, food, and things for the kids and the people in the village. It's life-changing, but it's co-op-changing as well.

Tamra Reynolds: Doran and I saw what a challenge it was to electrify this rural village, or collection of houses is probably more appropriate. The area of Guatemala, where this project took place, is a very different from the world I experience in Colorado. And clearly, even with the huge pre-planning effort, there was a need for our Florida team to remain flexible and resourceful. David and Jason both discuss this. The first voice you will hear is David, followed by Jason.

David Lambert: I've been at Withlacoochee for 29 years. I worked in the meter department, was a journeyman lineman, worked in member relations and managed several departments at the cooperative. When I was asked to be the team leader for this project, it was something that I didn't expect. When we went down in August for a pre-trip, I just seen the need. My heart went out to the children and the families and the seniors that were in that village, to live there your entire life and never have electricity.

As a team lead, when we visited Guatemala in August, it was to look at the terrain, look at the type of line that we were going to build, and judge the amount of time it would take and the amount of linemen that it would take to do that job. While we were there, we met with NRECA's in-country engineer and they were very helpful in going over the project with us. We met the people. We learned the conditions that we were going to be working in. We met the villagers and we looked at the houses and how we were going to wire them and what we would need.

When we got there, we got a good scope of the project and we were able to change the design of the line. We added upgraded transformers. We brought in more secondary to the project, so in the future that more homes could be electrified when they were built. We got a general overview of the poles and the angles of those poles and what they were going to have to be and how we were going to pull the wire in and what right of way needed to be trimmed. We got a good overview and it was extremely important to do that visit.

It gave us a great overview of the project and we changed the scope of the project with that visit. At the end of the day, we added actually an additional two transformers, so four total for the project, an additional mile of secondary to accommodate future needs. We redesigned the line so we wouldn't cross an investor-owned utility. Also, based on the terrain, we added four linemen to the project and we needed every one of those linemen to complete the project on time.

Jason Price: What I expected was a challenge, obviously, to be somewhere I've never been before. The terrain, the way it was described, volcanic ash, and rock. I've never seen volcanic ash and rock. I've never seen a volcano, much less, I mean, set pictures and much less work within earshot of one, and see it every day. Those drives that we had, that we took 45 minutes to drive nine miles. David says there's 52 anchors that we knew of prior to the job, prior to ever getting there. When he broke the job down to us in Tampa during orientation, 52 anchors. When we got there, there was one in the ground.

And you go back to volcanic and I remember when we were sitting there in front of the truck at what we call the show-up, where all our material was, every day, I remember asking the question. I said, "Is this volcanic rock? This rock that you see on top of the ground? How deep does this rock go?"

Eric, our engineer within NRECA said, "It goes all the way down." If you're digging and you go six inches and you hit a stone, you just move over. Well, it may have taken you 15 minutes just to get that far to find that out. It took me and Matt, was it me, Matt, and Dave?

Matt had a pair of post-hole diggers and Dave had a breaking bar, which is just a long steel bar with a point on the end so you're either busting rock for 15 minutes and then you're using a pair of post-hole diggers for the other 15. If you hit another one, if you can't break it, you move and that's what some of those villagers were doing. That I've never experienced. I've dug a lot of post holes, but I've never dug something like that and you so wanted to wish you had a digger truck sitting within 10 feet of you and just cranked that thing and let's be done with it.

David Lambert: When you're a lineman in the United States and you have a transformer that's blown, you pull up with a bucket truck, a $250,000 piece of equipment, and you can change that transformer route. Or you have all of the equipment necessary if you need to go climb a pole or something, and you have a team of people there to help you. At Empresa, they didn't have the equipment that we have. They didn't have the bucket trucks, they didn't have-- They were doing everything like we had done 80 years ago when rural electrification came about in the '30s.

The challenges that they faced just building basic infrastructure. What we built, single phase, basic infrastructure, that's nothing to do here today. We have every tool, every resource available to us. Those folks, they don't have those things. When talking to the villagers and talking to the Empresa  linemen, they said it could be another 25 to 30 years before those folks would've ever gotten power, if they had gotten it at all.

Jason Price: We had a north line and a west line, and to not go into too much detail about those. We could have built that west line in a day. It took us just one day just to pull a wire in one section, half of it. We were lucky we got that one done. The poles, just set a pole to hang a transformer. We hung a transformer with a transformer gin, which is to briefly explain, it's a fiberglass arm that you can actually strap to the top of the pole. Your own hooks, you climbed up there. You've got a rope that's a hand line that you can hoist that up, you strap that on, and then you use a set of rope blocks and it basically breaks the load of the transformer, which transformers are about 500-something pounds.

You're hoisting that up. Two men on the ground hoisting that up to you. That's what you're doing that with. There's no truck, there's no digger truck, there's no bucket truck. Even if we'd have had a bucket truck, I don't know that we could've got it in that road.

Tamra Reynolds: Steve Rhodes provides a little more perspective on the scope of the project undertaken and what the lineman faced on the project.

Steve Rhodes: In some ways, it's the same work that they do day to day extending a line and to an area to a new service that has not been connected before building a new line. In some ways, it's the same, but in other ways, it's vastly different, and the people who you are building to, it's not your typical member that we have here in Florida or the United States.

It's a lot of poverty there. I don't think that's news to anybody, but the homes that they live in are completely different and not up to the standard that we have in United States.

I think I can safely say for every one of those linemen on the job, that was something that I heard over and over again was their very visceral reaction to the conditions that these folks live in and the improvement that building this line can make in everyday lives, actually generational because once they're connected to electricity, it's never going to be the same for anybody in their family. I think that had a real impact on the linemen.

Teri Viswanath: So Tamra, when you mentioned “flexibility”, I don’t think I had a true appreciation of what you meant until Jason broke it down for us.

Jason Price: Every day was a change.

Now, we experienced changes here, but I can tell you very easily when we roll out of here, you roll out here with a piece of paperwork. It tells you what your job's going to be. It tells you what you need. Everything's in a box. The warehouse has it gathered together for you. You put it in your truck, you gather your men together. You're already on a crew. You know who you're going to be going with. You know what you're driving, you know what your responsibilities are. You leave for the day. You may have two of those jobs, three of them, one of them, depending on the size. This job, the staking sheet we started out with looks nothing like the one that we ended up with, nothing.

When we got through, David said, this is basically an as-built job. When we tried to have a tailgate at the hotel, David tried-- He did pretty good for two or three days, but after you have one at the hotel, and then you get to the show-up, and when you get to the show-up, something has changed already. All that went out the window and then say two hours into the morning, something else changes. That afternoon, something else changes. We were bombarded with changes every day. If David walked, if he walked a hundred feet, that man must have-- we all said he must have walked 10 miles across that project. He would leave, something would happen, he'd have to go fix it.

He did a yeoman's job at trying to not deflect, he was trying to absorb the changes that came. It seemed almost if it didn't happen every hour, it was happening at least part of the morning, either halfway through the morning or halfway through the afternoon. You're going to get frustrated. That's going to set in, that's just emotions. We know the timeframe, we know the job that we had to do. When you first start out, you got a goal and you're trying to get to it, then something throws a kink in it, you have to be able to change. You have to be able to roll with the punches. I can't say that enough about any of the guys that were with me.

Was it frustrating at times? Yes, absolutely. A lot of things can be, but we didn't look at them as problems. We just started looking at them as solutions or looking for solutions.

Tamra Reynolds: NRECA has successfully overseen electrification projects in Guatemala for the past 27 years. And, it would not be possible without significant collaboration with Empresa, the local municipal power company. Also, NRECA needs a big voluntary effort by the family members in the village. David highlights this point.

David Lambert: If we didn't work with Empresa, it would've been hard-pressed to get that job done. It was almost like a major team-building effort. Not only did we work with Empresa, the municipal, we also had a group of villagers that came and worked every day. Each family had to supply one man for the project for 10 days. We had the villagers that were helping us, we had Empresa that was helping us, and then we had our set of linemen that had came down.

Corralling that team together to create a cohesive unit so we could get the project done was significant because, one, of the language barrier, two, of the different way we worked, and three, we had to factor in the villagers, and they were amazing. They were so proud to help bring electricity to their village and to their home. We had to learn to slow down. One of the mantras of NRECA International is “be flexible.” I found that you had to do that.

Teri Viswanath: Tamra, you overheard the discussion about the difference in the approach to line work in Guatemala between our Florida co-ops and the Empresa crew, and asked Jason about this, right?

Tamra Reynolds: I did. I want to circle back on a memory that I had while we were there. I think we were talking at dinner or lunch [laughs] and someone had mentioned one of the municipal linemen. The local linemen, he climbed something, he didn't have hooks, he had a rope or something. It was a unique thing that you guys hadn't seen before, but you tried it yourselves. Could you explain what happened and what observation that was?

Jason Price: They have a belt, similar to what we have, but they don't use regular, we call them climbing hooks, gaffs, which on us is on our legs, on each leg, on our right and left leg is basically two straps around your shin and one are over your foot. Then that bar is actually on the inside of each of your legs with a hook or a point.

It was a rope that was looped around the pole and back down around-- that would be between your knee and your hip. Right in the middle, right up under your leg. They had two of those, one on each leg. They would press their boot, their toe against the pole, and just, I guess, leverage from your foot being pressed into the pole and your hips being pushed out away from the pole would put tension on the rope.

Watching us climb with hooks was like watching them climb with the rope.

What they did with the ropes, the way that they climbed was actually beneficial at the end of the job.

Tamra, I believe, the next morning, the night that you all got there, the next morning when you all showed up, that concrete pole across the road that we actually tapped off of, they couldn't get their own truck to it.

Had he not been able to climb it, that was a concrete pole, and we can't climb that with hooks. We had no other way to get there, so he climbed that with those ropes. We're on that concrete. Now, that was something to see. It's just a different style. It's the way that they do it.

You can take the ropes, they're a great example and how they use those and watching them use them, [chuckles] watching a lot of what they did was not something we could do. That's something that we talked about the tools that they had and the tools that they didn't have and how in the world, how they've been able to do what they have done.

That was beneficial between each lineman. Both sides, from their side and our side from the way they did things and the way that we did things. Man, that was cool.

Teri Viswanath: While the entire team was composed of Florida co-op linemen, it’s important to understand that these are different co-ops… you know, if you’ve seen one co-op, you’ve seen one co-op? And even if the linemen were from the same co-op, there is a high possibility that they haven’t worked together, especially under these sort of harsh conditions. Jason describes this, followed by an observation that Steve Rhodes makes.

Jason Price: You took the change that was given to you, you rolled with it, you adapted and you made it happen. I don't know if you could describe a lineman any better. Taking in the logistics, the terrain, to be surrounded by the group of men I was surrounded with, I would go anywhere, anywhere, anytime, any place, and do anything with that group of men.

Again, like I said, it may have been a problem for a few minutes, but we were working our way towards a solution pretty quick because the end goal was to make those lights burn and to get those people turned on, and we did it.

Steve Rhodes: Just seeing the reaction from the team members, all the linemen, especially, of course, my three linemen Jason Price, Ricky Brassell and Derek Tabor. Just seeing their reaction to the work that they had done and the impact it's going to have on those lives.

I think just seeing the enthusiasm and the passion from every one of the linemen or 14 linemen from Florida that went, we had three from CHELCO, but just seeing their emotional response to what had occurred and bringing power to these folks in Guatemala, it's certainly a two-way benefit. It's not just us helping the Guatemalans. It's also the experience and the reaction that each one of our linemen got and I'll say the same thing for me as well.

My biggest takeaway is, of course, we're changing lives by providing electricity to these good folks, but we're also benefiting greatly in return from the experience. I just really enjoyed seeing how all the linemen, especially my three linemen from CHELCO reacted and the positive returns that they got from participating in this program.

Tamra Reynolds: I asked the same question to each one of our guests and that was if they could pinpoint one favorite memory from the experience in Guatemala, what would that be?

Jason talked about the unexpected friendships that developed with the community. One of the community volunteers, Ronaldo, was mistakenly believed to be a student. He had made a comment that he needed to return to town to do some homework. Jason eventually found out that what he meant by ‘doing homework’ was actually grading homework. He is a local school teacher but was also a really important volunteer on the village electrification project, because his mother’s home was one of residences that was wired. Jason’s favorite memories were the friends made along the way, including Ronaldo.

Jason Price: We were there to provide power, but then right along provided a connection between two different cultures in an unexpected way and be it all by providing electricity to somebody that's never had it.

Teri Viswanath: David Lambert spoke about the generational impact of the work accomplished in Guatemala.

David Lambert: My favorite memory that I have in Guatemala that will stick with me forever. Forever. I'm a father, I have two beautiful daughters, and this little girl came up to me, I'll never forget her as long as I live. She gave me a big hug, and I could tell with that hug that she gave me that her whole life was going to change. Her grandmother was there, and her grandmother looked at me and she said, "Through God, all things are possible." She had lived in that village her entire life and never thought she would see electricity, but I could see her looking down at her grandchildren.

She knew that with electricity they were going to have a better life, way better life than she did. Know that they were going to have a better life because of what we came over and done. It was significant for me.

To do something great for humanity and great for the next generation that's coming along, and not only that generation, but for generations to come, it's powerful. It changes the world, it changes everybody's life that you touch and it changes them in the future for the good.

Just to know I was a part of changing the lives of generations to come by bringing electricity, something that I've been trained for the last 29 years and have an impact on these families, really touched my heart. It's something that I'll never forget as long as I live.

Teri Viswanath: Back in Denver, Tamra you made sure that we were keeping up with the events in Guatemala, by sharing photos and videos. In fact, there was a real risk that we might lose some of those memories if you didn’t give us a nightly download simply because of the limited space on your phone. But I really loved these. I recall seeing a photo of you with a pair of neon green sunglasses that somehow wound up being worn by a cute little girl from that village. I really enjoyed hearing the stories from Guatemala. I hope that all of our listeners have enjoyed this as well.

Tamra Reynolds: Me too. It was truly a life-changing experience and one that I won’t soon forget. I hope you will join us next month, where we’ll feature highlights from this year’s NRECA TechAdvantage and PowerXchange meetings in Nashville. Be sure to visit us at the CoBank Farm Credit Leasing booth, number 1635, in the TechAdvantage exhibit hall. Goodbye for now. 

Disclaimer: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by listeners for such purposes. The information contained in this podcast has been compiled from what CoBank regards as reliable sources. However, CoBank does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this podcast. In no event will CoBank be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this podcast.

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Power Plays is a CoBank Knowledge Exchange monthly audio program that connects with top energy and environmental innovators who share their, insights, experience and observations of the market.