Original Document
Original Document
Morris L. Cooke, "Electrifying the Countryside," Survey Graphic, 1935

Though rural power uses of electricity began thirty-five years ago on an irrigated farm in California, the 1930 Census showed that only one tenth of American farms had central station service. One of the barriers to the development of farm electrification has been the rural line extension policy of many of the utilities. The power company has persisted in regarding the farmer not as a potential power customer, but as a small domestic consumer. Rates for domestic consumption have been notoriously high. Larger industrial consumers have been able to set up their own plants if power companies refused to give them favorable wholesale rates, and since the utilities needed the volume of industrial business, large consumers have rarely have difficulty in obtaining equitable rates. But the house holder, who can not economically generate his own energy, has had to pay what was asked or do without electricity. Generally, in the cities, he preferred to pay, often at rates so high that they limited his use of electricity to lighting. A lamp advertisement in 1927 asserted that while only 21 percent of the energy generated the preceding year was used for lighting, this form of consumption nevertheless had provided 64 percent of the industry's revenues!

In addition to paying for the energy he used, the farmer was expected to advance to the power company most or all of the costs of construction. Since utility company ideas as to what constituted sound rural lines have been rather fancy, such costs were prohibitive for most farmers. A convention of the old National Electric Light Association agreed that rural service was practicable only where lines were being extended from one well settled community to another and farms Could be picked up incidentally enroute. In effect this meant that scores of counties classed by our Census as 100 per cent rural could never hope to enjoy the advantages of electricity.

Here we have one of the factors responsible for the uneven progress of industry and agriculture. Compared with the factory, the farm has suffered from antiquated machinery and outmoded techniques. A limited and inferior standard of living has been the farmer's reward for years of backbreaking toil. The promise of continued drudgery and the absence of modern comforts have helped drive from the farm to the city those who were most free to travel but who were at the same time most needed in rural communities - the young people. To correct, at least in part, the unbalance between rural and city life, like many another worthy cause, meant a lot of uphill work. Yet all of us who studied the problem believed that an opening inevitably would come for a serious; well-ordered effort to extend to the farm the benefits electricity has made possible to town dwellers in this country and to both urban and rural families in many other lands.

Such an opening came through the Emergency Relief Act of 1935. With the problem of unemployment still acute and the position of agriculture and industry impaired, rural electrification offered projects which would at once provide jobs, stimulate manufacturing, and aid the farmer. Accordingly the Congress earmarked a substantial sum for this work, and the President, by an executive order dated May 11, 1935, created the Rural Electrification Administration. A year later, the Congress passed the Norris-Rayburn Act, the purpose of which is to insure a ten-year integrated program for electrifying American farms. To that end, it authorizes appropriations of $410 million.

Essentially the REA is a financing agency. A large part of its work, both as an emergency agency, and as an agency charged with responsibility for a long term plan, consists in allocating funds for the construction of rural lines. These funds are not grants, but loans, made to private companies, to public agencies or to cooperatives, to be repaid within twenty-five years, with interest computed at approximately the prevailing rate for government obligations.

The details of the ten-year program will be better understood if we glance back over the accomplishments of the experimental year as an emergency bureau. First, the fundamentals of a technique for evaluating projects have been evolved. Second, over one hundred rural electrification projects have been approved, embracing 13,200 miles of rural distribution lines to serve 53,000 customers in thirty-two states. Some of these lines are already energized and many others are under construction. Third, suggested specifications for economical rural line construction have been prepared and distributed by REA engineers. A campaign for improving farm life through greater utilization of electricity has been undertaken. New groups desiring to set up cooperatives have been given legal and technical assistance. Last, but most important, REA has helped modify the whole outlook for rural electrification. To the utilities, REA has shown that there is a mine of hidden profit in rural electrification if they will operate on a comprehensive scale….

The experience of the first year of REA has been especially valuable in demonstrating the desirability of a long term, carefully planned program. Under the line extension polices generally in practice until recently, the more prosperous farms in a given area ultimately received electric service, while the less prosperous farms by that very fact became more isolated, less able to bear the expense of the extension. The result was a haphazard rural system of finger-like lines, with great pockets of unserved areas between and beyond them. Obviously a system planned in advance to cover a given area thoroughly would have been far more satisfactory to the consumers and in the long run to the companies….

Under its ten-year program, REA hopes to bring electricity to another million American farms. Its emphasis will be on loans for distribution lines, in order to continue cooperating as far as possible with existing producers of electric energy….

Not through the mechanism of cooperatives alone, however, does REA hope to bring forward leaders in the rural electrification movement. An integral part of the ten-year program will be the training of student engineers for this type of work. Properly qualified young men having a public point of view will be given opportunity to do practical field work in connection with REA projects. They will, of course, be paid for their services, while at the same time they will be acquiring first-hand experience in a most promising branch of electrical enterprise.

Another important way in which REA seeks to contribute to electrical progress is through stimulating research. Its own efforts will doubtless be confined to immediate practical problems, such as the attack on reducing line costs. Similarly, REA will work toward increasing line efficiency, integrating small systems into something like a "grid," and giving farmers the results of experiments and demonstrations in electrifying farm operations. Electrical manufacturing corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse are already well equipped to carry on other types of research as are also certain of the government bureaus. The company laboratories have the facilities for experimenting with new equipment for better and cheaper generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity. Various government agencies arc qualified to test equipment and to investigate the value of electricity for such purposes as heating, sterilizing, and fertilizing soil. Numerous experiments on the effect of artificial light on plant growth are already under way. Electric heating and air cooling of greenhouses with a single type of apparatus may soon prove practicable. Insect and pest control, sterilization of feed, and innumerable other applications of electricity to agriculture are in various stages of experimentation. REA will cooperate with public and private groups engaged in such research. Thus it hopes to become a clearing house for new suggestions as they go to the laboratory and for new applications after their value has been tested. So far we have considered the ten-year electrification plan as a thing in itself. Actually, however, it is part of the comprehensive program envisioned in the National Resources Board report. Farm electrification, by providing an essentially new market for almost unlimited quantities of power, makes its contribution to the justification for development of our great water resources for public hydroelectric projects. Modern engineering science has made the multiple purpose dam a reality. Such a dam may impound flood waters, provide irrigation and water supply reservoirs, regulate stream flow, and generate electricity.

But in areas where we do not ordinarily build great dams - the lands of little headwater streams - rural electrification can also make a significant contribution to the solving of flood and land use problems. Hundreds of tiny upstream dams, automatically controlled by electricity, might be so developed as to regulate stream flow. Waters that usually rush off the land can be held by improved farming practices such as strip cropping and contour plowing. The same methods retard erosion and so lessen the dangers of exhausted land and of silt-destroyed dams. REA carefully studies the land use problems of its project areas, to avoid setting up lines in marginal or submarginal regions from which the population should, and doubtless will, move. But electricity can do as much toward intensifying agriculture for us as it has done for France, so that smaller areas will become capable of supporting more people. This means that we shall be able gradually to withdraw unsuitable lands from cultivation. It means, too, that scattered farms, with their disproportionate expense to county, state and federal governments for schools and roads, will tend to be eliminated.

Improved living conditions will partly check migration from farm to farm and from farm to city. Conservation of the soil will go hand in hand with the establishment of a permanent farm home, the constant improvement of which will then become a source of pride. It is even possible that with the advent of cheap and abundant power throughout the countryside, industry itself may show a tendency to decentralize. Whether this occurs or not, electricity will add immeasurably to the comfort, convenience, and profit of farming. In so far as it contributes to the social and economic stability of our agriculture, the rural electrification movement in America may well claim a national victory.

Credit: Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association
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