LETTER: Power lines down

Last week’s wind storm left a few Keizer neighborhoods without power for the better part of two nights and days, long enough to get one’s attention.  

After a few days and nights without power, you begin to adapt. Projects and chores that require light have to get done before sunset. You have to figure out ways to get all of your devices charged so that you can communicate. At night you find yourself automatically reaching for the light switch when entering a dark room even though you know that the power is out. What and how will you eat? Don’t open the fridge, preserve the cold, and so on.

Living without power can be good training. How is your battery supply? Do you have a way of preserving your cold storage food in case of a prolonged power outage? Is your battery-operated radio nearby? Sitting quietly in the dark you begin to realize what a luxury reliable electric power really is.  

And as you sit out the quiet and dark, you might begin to wonder what was it like for early man who at night huddled in a cave perhaps with a small fire dying out and unable to sleep as he kept a nervous eye and ear out for what ever enemy or predator might attack in the dark. Sunrise and light could not come soon enough.

You might also wonder just how our electric power supply and distribution system was constructed? What and who brought electricity to developing communities such as Keizer? Have you heard of the Rural Electrification Act (REA)? Prior to the mid 1930s, 90% of rural America, especially in the west, lived in darkness after sunset. The REA was passed by Congress in May 1936 as a way to improve life in much of America by bringing electricity to rural farms and communities.

In 1949 the Act was authorized to bring telephone service to these same rural areas. The program operated by providing low cost loans to cooperatives and utility districts that were formed and tasked with bringing power and telephone service to their areas of geographic responsibility. The REA was terminated in 1994 and it’s mission transferred to the Rural Utilities Service (RUS). It was and is one of our country’s great achievements.

Our current system is an amazingly complex infrastructure and service that exists because of the efforts of talented inventors, innovators, engineers, scientists, and an expert work force that maintains the system. A work force that will, during outages, work day and night in dangerous conditions to get the power restored. Perhaps we too often take the existence of constant and reliable power for granted. It sure is exciting when the power is suddenly back on. For a short while it seems like a luxury.

Despite the work of the REA and its successor, the RUS, there are still areas in the country that do not have electricity. For example, remote parts of the Navajo Indian Reservation are still without electricity and running water and, without running water there are no sewer systems. Perhaps these areas are so far beyond the “end of the line” that the economics of extension just don’t pencil out. Or perhaps the commitment to make it happen just isn’t there. Or perhaps it is by choice. Not everyone wants to live on the grid. Any or all of these possibilities might exist but this doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  

The REA played a major role in the modernization of America. It bettered the lives of rural people throughout the country and was made possible by Congress and supportive presidents. It made possible the potential that a developed West could and would eventually bring to the country. 

(Jim Parr lives in Keizer.)