NOVEC lineworkers Blake Sparling and Mauricio Paz left the comfort and convenience of Northern Virginia in October to bring some comfort and convenience to the villagers of Santa Isabel, Guatemala.
They, along with 16 fellow lineworkers from Virginia and Maryland electric co-ops, were part of the United We Light effort, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) International initiative that brings electricity to rural communities around the world. The project was completed with support from NRECA and Empresa Municipal Rural de Electricidad (EMRE), an electric co-op in Guatemala.
Despite a myriad of challenges and obstacles, the lights are on for about 500 Santa Isabel residents for the first time ever. The team installed more than five miles of primary conductor, transformers, breaker boxes, wired lights, switches, and electrical boxes. They also added service connections to about 115 residences, including a school and church.
“Accessibility was tough,” said Sparling. “There are no real roads,” which led to broken-down trucks, flat tires, and vehicles that had to be rescued from the mud.
EMRE had erected the poles before the Americans arrived, but there were no bucket trucks to get lineworkers to the tops of the poles. “We had to climb every pole,” said Paz.
Sparling said they had to complete many of their tasks manually in humid conditions where the heat index reached 119 degrees. He said, “It was exhausting,” and it took several days to adapt to the environment.
Paz said it was great to work with the local lineworkers. “We knew the equipment by different names, and we couldn’t really communicate, but we
figured it out. Everyone there had the same goal. We were all feeding off the same energy.”
After some delays, the group finally got started on Oct. 5 and worked quickly to make up for lost time. That first day, crews installed a few spans of primary wire, they framed and laid out secondary poles, and they marked some homes for wiring.
While in Santa Isabel, Sparling and Paz interacted frequently with the villagers. The children in particular were curious about the men and their work, and Sparling, at 6 feet, 5 inches tall, was a giant to them. Paz wrote NOVEC in the mud on the side of the truck. When they told the kids what the word was, the children chanted “NOVEC! NOVEC!”
“It was a joy having the kids around,” said Paz, and he gladly shared any extra snacks with them. The lineworkers made a seesaw for the children and joined in a game of soccer. When the crew flew their drone, the children clustered around, eager to view the footage on the controller’s screen.The residents of Santa Isabel helped the United We Light effort where they could. They carried cables, and brought the workers bags of peanuts, fruit, and coconuts to eat. Most speak a Mayan language — Q’equchi.’
Guatemalans who were objecting to presidential election results held some peaceful protests that caused repeated disruptions to the United We Light project. Paz described the adventure as equal parts humbling, emotional, and frustrating. “At times, it was a roller coaster. The uncertainty was the toughest, not knowing what would happen the next day.”
NOVEC’s lineworkers made the most of their first few hours back home. Sparling said he immediately headed out to a comedy club in Washington. Paz
said he was just grateful to get home to a good shower, and to kiss his wife and three kids.
Both men said they would be first in line to sign up for another United We Light experience if offered the chance. Paz said, “When we are able to restore power to people after a storm, those people are happy and grateful, but to be able to give power to folks who have never had it, that was totally different.”