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Rural electrification is the process of bringing electrical power to rural and remote areas. Electricity is used not only for lighting and household purposes, but it also allows for mechanization of many farming operations, such as threshing, milking, and hoisting grain for storage; in areas facing labor shortages, this allows for greater productivity at reduced cost. The most famous such program was the New Deal's Rural Electrification Administration in the United States, which pioneered many of the themes still practiced in other countries. Worldwide more than 1.6 billion people do not have access to electricity, of which 80 % live in rural areas. In Sub Saharan Africa only 9 % of the rural population has access to electricity.


In impoverished and undeveloped areas, small amounts of electricity can free large amounts of human time and labor. In the poorest areas, people carry water and fuel by hand, their food storage may be limited, and their activity is limited to daylight hours.

Adding electric-powered wells for clean water can prevent many water-borne diseases, e.g. dysintery, by reducing or eliminating direct contact between people (hands) and the water supply. Refrigerators increase the time that food can be stored, potentially reducing hunger, while evening lighting can lengthen a community's daylight hours.


Depending on the source, rural electrification (and electricity in general) can bring problems as well as solutions. New power plants may be built, or existing plant's generation capacity increased to meet the demands of the new [rural] electrical users. A government may be inclined to use the cheapest generation source, which might be the most polluting, and locate the power plant next vulnerable minorities or rural areas.

Many farmers, cooperatives and independent organisations contest that the Rural Utility Service, which is responsible for providing loans and subsidies for electric utilities who build in rural areas is outdated and is inhibiting free-market competition. Over 99% of rural farms have access to electricity, but many may benefit more from utility competition and renewables .


One of the least expensive, most reliable, and best proven mains electricity distribution systems for rural electrification is single wire earth return. This system is widely used in countries such as Australia with very low populations densities. Also, there are some geographical requirements necessary for its use. There are many instance where these two systems are used together in the same system to serve remote and less remote rural populations.

Since modern power distribution networks can cheaply include optic fibres in the centre of one of the wires, telephone and internet service may become available with rural electrification.

Locally generated renewable energy is an efficient technology, particularly compared to electrification with diesel generators. Higher installations costs are coupled with significantly lower running costs. Hybrid systems (renewables combined with diesel generators) are a widely acknowledged technology for rural electrification in developing countries.

Continental and National initiatives


Chinamarker launched the China Township Electrification Program in 2001 to provide renewable electricity to 1,000 townships, one of the largest such programs in the world. This is being followed by the China Village Electrification Program, also using renewable energy, aimed at electrification of a further 3.5 million households in 10,000 villages by 2010, to be followed by full rural electrification by 2015.


At least half of the population of India is in villages, and most of these villages receive less than eight hours of electricity per day.

The problem is not one of distribution, but of provision. Many people attempt to steal electric power. The electric company then responds with punitive "tampering tariffs" that require payment for all the electricity that the fraudulent connections and meters might have stolen. These very high tariffs are unaffordable, resisted by all but the wealthiest users. The result is that the underfunded electric power company reduces service to the amount of electricity it can afford to produce. The electric companies therefore also prefer to serve large institutional customers that pay their bills.

Developments on cheap solar technology is considered as a potential alternative that allows an electricity infrastructure comprising of a network of local-grid clusters with distributed electricity generation. That could allow bypassing, or at least relieving the need of installing expensive, and lossy, long-distance centralised power delivery systems and yet bring cheap electricity to the masses.

The government has proposed legislation to have village leaders operate local generators run from biomass (see links). Locally-controlled generation is preferable to distant generation because the fuel, billing and controls for the generator will then be controlled by the villagers themselves, and they are thought more likely to come to an equitable arrangement among themselves.

However, there is doubt that villagers can run such an installation.

One proposal for such an installation would be to ferment the biomass, and use the resulting gas to run a clean diesel engine producing about 500 kW. Directly burning the biomass would require that it be dried from 50% water content to 10-15%, and this uses energy. In contrast, fermenting biogases is well-established technology, and produces fuel directly usable in a diesel engine. Also, since the fuel is almost pure methane, the diesel's exhaust would itself be clean drinking water, and the heat of the exhaust could be used to distill more clean drinking water.[170749]

European Union

In Europe exists the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE), an international non-profit organization founded in 2006 . ARE promotes the use of renewable energy in developing countries. ARE is partner of the United Nations Global Compact and the European Union Sustainable Energy Campaign.


During the 1930s most towns in Ireland were connected to the grid but the outbreak of World War II in Europe lead to shortages of fuel and materials which brought the process to a virtual halt until the early 1950s when the Rural Electrification scheme gradually brought electric power to the countryside a process that was completed on the mainland in 1973 (but it wasn't until 2003 that the last of the inhabited offshore islands were fully connected). Currently the Rural Electrification scheme continues but is primarily concerned with upgrading the quality of the network (voltage fluctuations are still a problem in parts of Ireland -particularly in rural areas) and making three phase supplies available to larger farms and rural businesses requiring it.

United States

In 1892, Guy Beardslee, the original owner of Beardslee Castle, was paid $40,000 to provide hydroelectric power to East Creek in New York.

Despite widespread electricity in cities, by the 1920's electricity was not delivered by power companies to rural areas because of the general belief that the infrastructure costs would not be recouped. In sparsely-populated farmland, there were far fewer houses per mile of installed electric lines. A Minnesotamarker state committee was organized to carry out a study of the costs and benefits of rural electrification. [170750] The University of Minnesotamarker Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, working jointly with NSP (now Xcel Energy), conducted an experiment, providing electricity to nine farms in the Red Wing area. Electricity was first delivered on December 24, 1923.[170751] The "Red Wing Project" was successful- the power company and the University concluded that rural electrification was economically feasible. The results of the report were influential in the National government's decision to support rural electrification.

Before 1936, a small but growing number of farms installed small wind-electric plant. These generally used a 40V DC generator to charge batteries in the barn or the basement of the farmhouse. This was enough to provide lighting, washing machines and some limited well-pumping or refrigeration. Wind-electric plants were used mostly on the great plains, which have usable winds on most days.

Of the 6.3 million farms in the United States in January 1925, only 3.2 million were receiving centralized electric services. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created by executive order as an independent federal bureau in 1935, authorized by the United States Congress in the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, and later in 1939, reorganized as a division of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. It was charged with administering loan programs for electrification and telephone service in rural areas. Between 1935 and 1939 – or the first 4 ½ years after REA's establishment, the number of farms using electric services more than doubled.

The REA undertook to provide farms with inexpensive electric lighting and power. To implement those goals the administration made long-term, self-liquidating loans to state and local governments, to farmers' cooperatives, and to nonprofit organizations; no loans were made directly to consumers. In 1949 the REA was authorized to make loans for telephone improvements; in 1988, REA was permitted to give interest-free loans for job creation and rural electric systems. By the early 1970s about 98% of all farms in the United States had electric service, a demonstration of REA's success. The administration was abolished in 1994 and its functions assumed by the Rural Utilities Service. Also, the Tennessee Valley Authority is an agency involved in rural electrification.

In the arts


In 2005, a musical about the rural electrification of Ireland, The Wiremen, written by composer Shay Healy, directed by Matt Ryan with musical direction by Julian Kelly, and produced by John McColgan/Moya Doherty of Riverdance fame, ran for six weeks at The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin. Set in the fictional village of Kilnacree in North Mayo, the story had the drama of a young local farmer resisting progress, set against the comedy and upheaval occasioned by the arrival of The Wiremen, in this case seven Dubliners, known as The Lightning Jacks.


The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? contains a reference to rural electrification in the end, when the main character Everett (George Clooney) talks about how life will change with the introduction of a hydroelectric dam.

The 1937 movie Slim (based on the novel by William Wister Haines) starring Henry Fonda salutes the linemen who wired the remote parts of the United States for electric power during the 1930s and realistically details many of the dangers they faced climbing towers and working on energized high-voltage equipment. The movie is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies and is said to have been one of Henry Fonda's favorite roles. The beginning of the film contains a montage tribute to the men who pioneered the electric power industry and contains scenes from REA documentaries describing the electrification of America.

See also


  1. Renewables Global Status Report 2006 Update, REN21, published 2006, accessed 2007-05-16
  2. Alliance for Rural Electrification
  3. Beall, Robert T. (1940). "Rural Electrification." United States Yearbook of Agriculture. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture. p. 790-809. Retrieved December 30, 2008.

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