A century ago, the US electric power industry was well on its way to providing service to every building in every town and city. But even as late as 1936, more than 90% of American farms still lacked electricity.
The magazine Literary Digest published a fascinating cartogram illustrating this disparity in 1921, with US states depicted according to their respective electricity consumption. New York is, not surprisingly, massive, followed by Pennsylvania and then California. By contrast, the rural South is tiny, and states like the Dakotas, New Mexico and Wyoming are practically invisible. In the South in particular, there was a distinct mismatch between state population and electricity consumption: Mississippi ranked 23rd in population in 1920 but 44th in electricity sales.
The federal government had a solution. The Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935 with the express purpose of bringing electricity to farms. It was a success. Per the US Department of Agriculture, thanks to REA work and loans, by 1950 almost 80% of US farms had power. Since that effort, “generations have heard the stories about ‘the night the lights came on,’ a significant date for farm families,” a USDA account notes. (The REA was later absorbed into the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service.)
A significant part of the REA’s work was education on the benefits of electrification. Un-electrified farms were not without illumination or energy: Liquid fuel had been available at country stores for decades (it was kerosene, after all, that built Standard Oil). Kerosene and gasoline were both used widely on farms, and not just for agricultural processes. That said, kerosene was an expensive and inferior option for light, and Maytag’s gasoline-powered washing machines were already three decades old by the time the REA began its project.
So the REA invested significantly in communicating the benefits of electric power, and it did so in an artistic way. Lester Beall, a Midwest graphic artist, created a series of posters crisply capturing what electricity could bring to the farm: light, running water, labor-saving devices, light industry, entertainment. Most of all, Beall’s work touted the fact that life with electricity could be easier; it could be, simply, better.
I am thinking of the REA and Lester Beall as the world begins another great wave of electrification as part of its decarbonization efforts.
The first part of that wave must be to extend access to electricity to everyone. There are still 770 million people worldwide without reliable access to power, for whom electrification hardly needs a strong pitch. Off-grid solar could provide electricity to more than 600 million people by the end of this decade, according to the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association. But not only will off-grid solar not provide power to absolutely everyone, it will still not provide the entirety of what even a 1930s-style rural grid in the US could: consistent, always-on power not just for lighting and cooking, but for pumping water and industrial activity.
The second element will be akin to what Beall and the REA pitched to Depression-era farmers: offering better options than what we have today. We should look past the inane politicking around gas versus electric stoves, and to the top end of fine dining, where renowned chefs have been using portable induction cooktops for 15 years.
That logic will need to extend upwards from the home. It is already happening in road transport, thanks to electric vehicles (including minicars and bikes — more than 30 million electric two-wheelers were sold in 2022). It will need to happen with industrial processes and with heat as well.
There, the sell is a bit harder. But there are still key persuasive elements. Lower emissions is paramount, but so too are local benefits such as reduced air pollution and relief from variable fuel costs. We need the equivalent of the REA but for industry, everywhere: a global electrification agency, so to speak.
It might all sound a bit aesthetic for a global energy matter. Lester Beall, though, might have seen the connections clearly. The artist “bore in mind the powerful connection between public art and political activism,” according to the industry publication for rural electric cooperatives. In Beall’s words, “Applied good taste is a mark of good citizenship.” Perhaps that lesson, with reduced environmental impact as an element of taste, applies today and tomorrow, too.
Nat Bullard is a senior contributor to BloombergNEF and Bloomberg Green. He is a venture partner at Voyager, an early-stage climate technology investor.
To contact the author of this story:
Nathaniel Bullard in Washington at email@example.com
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