Starting in 1936 they wired the entire country, the houses, the tools and the farms, changing America. It is time to think big and do it again.
The Green New Deal calls for "upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximum energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification." That's a big job; there are millions of houses and buildings that have to be upgraded. Many say it can't be done, that it is too expensive and intrusive.
The electrification of America was a national priority during the Great Depression, with special emphasis on improving rural areas. Seen as an essential step in raising the standard of living for millions of Americans struggling with economic crisis, a number of government agencies set out to provide rural Americans with electrical power. Lester Beall's posters for the Rural Electrification Administration, a federal agency dedicated to serving rural communities, illustrated in bold, graphic terms the advantages of electricity. In this poster, radio waves, depicted as arrows, are sending information into the farmhouse. Other posters in this series extolled electric light, plumbing, and washing machines, all examples of the improved quality of life made possible through electricity.
It was an expensive job, but the government was there to lend money for people to do the work they needed to do. Private industry wasn't much interested in it either; according to the Roosevelt Institute,
While 90% of urban dwellers had electricity by the 1930s, only 10% of rural dwellers did and roughly 9 out of 10 farms had none. Private companies hadn’t been interested in building costly electricity lines into the countryside and assumed the farmers would be too poor to buy the electricity once it was there. But by 1939, the REA had helped establish 417 coops, which served 288,000 households. By 1939, 25% of rural households had electricity. By the time FDR died in 1945, an estimated 9 out of 10 farms were electrified.
According to the Living New Deal,
Key among these policies was that loans would be made available for both large construction projects (for example, power plants and power lines) and for individual homes (for example, wiring and appliances). Repayment could extend up to 25 years and the interest rate would be kept low by tying it to federal government borrowing rates. Importantly, individuals would not be held personally liable for default on an REA loan.
It also cost less than the existing utilities said it would.
Whereas private power companies had originally suggested prices of $1,500 to $2,000 for each mile of power line constructed, “By 1939, REA borrowers were building lines for an average of less than $825 per mile, including overhead”. By 1943, $466 million had been lent by REA for electric power infrastructure, 380,000 miles of power lines had been installed, and over a million consumers were receiving electricity. The REA continued into the postwar era and helped the percentage of electrified farms in the United States rise from 11 percent to almost 97 percent by 1960. The New Deal had helped rural America achieve near-total electrification.
Imagine stringing hundreds of thousands of miles of wire, then financing the upgrading of houses, the purchasing of pumps and other equipment, improving the lives of millions. And imagine the impact it had on the country; per the Roosevelt Institute:
The access to electricity completely changed rural life, bringing appliances into the house and onto the field, improving health and sanitation with running water and refrigerators, and connecting farms to the outside world via the radio.
All of these things happened because people got electricity. They invested personally in the radios and the fridges, and this was a major part of the restarting of the economy. A green new deal for housing would do much the same thing; it puts people to work in one of the few jobs that cannot be offshored. Rebuilding our homes and cities probably pays for itself in the long run. Time to think big.