Until the 1980s, the constant chugging of a diesel generator was a kind of household heartbeat in the remote Pine Valley of northern Nevada. If you woke up at 3 a.m. to silence, it was alarming.
Rancher Tom Tomera had been there more than once: “If that generator goes off in the middle of the night, you’re wide awake in a moment, standing up and yanking your pants on.”
For neighbor Polly Damele, “that’s panic time … you wonder, is it broken? Is it on fire?”
That worry faded into memory on February 4, 1986, the day Wells Rural Electric Company, a co-op based in the crossroads town of Wells, energized a new line and substation to serve a gold mine north of Pine Valley and a dozen ranches along the way.
The Dameles—Polly, husband, Steve, and children Jennifer, Audrey, and Steven—had experienced that feeling of panic as recently as Christmas. But with a co-op pole and transformer already standing between their tractor shed and house, they chose not to repair their aged generator and to make do with a smaller rented one until the big day.
They ran the rental off a tractor and shut it down every night before going to bed for fear the tractor engine would overheat and seize up. That presented a different problem: Polly had trouble sleeping. “I couldn’t get used to the total silence,” she said.
Pine Valley’s generators needed constant attention: check the oil twice a day; fill the gas tank; check the water level in the radiator; stop everything else you’re doing to make repairs. “It’s time consuming, inconvenient … and when it tears up, it’s a fortune to fix, if you can find the parts,” said Tomera’s wife, Patsy.
Steve Damele told RE Magazine staff writer Robert Gibson about the time he and his father were eating supper at a café in Cold Spring, 200 miles south of Pine Valley, when a bull they had just purchased busted out of the cattle trailer and ran off into the sagebrush. The men drove home to get some horses for the search.
“When we got home, it was 2 a.m., and Polly and the kids were in the dark. The light plant was out,” Steve recalled. “So we had to fix the light plant. Then around dawn, we went out and wrangled the horses and headed back to Cold Spring. We saddled up and tracked the bull. Found him the next afternoon with a group of heifers.” Standing outside in the thin early morning light of mid-January, looking down the valley to the hay meadows on his father’s ranch and the white peaks of the Roberts Mountains beyond, Steve recalled how, on and off over the years, there had been talk of running a line up to Pine Valley from Mt. Wheeler Power, a co-op to the south, or from Wells Rural Electric to the east. But nothing ever came of it because it was never financially feasible for the small co-ops.
“A few years ago, I got a yard light as a gift from my brother,” Steve said. “I joked with him that I’d put it up when the power came into the valley. But deep down in my heart, I knew it would never come.”
Then the unexpected happened: Carlin Gold Company opened a new mine, and there was enough money in the 2 percent “hardship” loan the Wells-based co-op received from the Rural Electrification Administration to reach both the mine—a big load for the co-op—and the ranches with power lines.
The new co-op members had to agree to a minimum electric bill of $125, but that was a steal compared to the $300 to $400 they spent each month on diesel fuel for their generators.
And then there were the incalculable gains: uninterrupted sleep, power that wasn’t dirty and noisy, being able to iron a daughter’s party dress while also running the dishwasher, enough voltage to run an arc welder or an irrigation pump. Each household had its own list.
“This,” said Tom Tomera, “is like fire to the cavemen.”