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Energy Habits Are Changing in Latin America’s Cities

Alejandro Casas’s electric taxi, which he drives in Montevideo, cost him 63,000 dollars, but he was given a five-year loan and he gets free recharges, as part of an initiative supported by the state-owned electric company and the government of the Uruguayan capital. Credit: Verónica Firme/IPS

Alejandro Casas’s electric taxi, which he drives in Montevideo, cost him 63,000 dollars, but he was given a five-year loan and he gets free recharges, as part of an initiative supported by the state-owned electric company and the government of the Uruguayan capital. Credit: Verónica Firme/IPS

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil, Aug 24 2017 (IPS) - The Vaz de Souza’s were so keen on the solar water heater that they made it their mission and business, which prospered with the surge in innovation in their city, Belo Horizonte, recognised as the solar energy capital of Brazil.

In 1998 they founded the Maxtemper company, which has already installed over 40,000 solar water systems in homes, pools, companies and public facilities in the eastern state of Minas Gerais, mainly in Belo Horizonte, where similar suppliers have mushroomed.

“The success was due to the fact that ‘mineiros’ (people from Minas Gerais) are thrifty, careful with their money,” said 62-year-old Cornelio Ferreira Vaz, co-owner of the company. The savings in electricity pays off the initial investment in a maximum of two years, and the equipment lasts two decades, he told IPS.

“Buildings used to be passive resource consuming spaces, but with the new concepts and policies they have become active in generating electricity.” -- Rodrigo Sauaia

“It is appealing because of its economic and ecological benefits, for your pocketbook and for nature,” said his wife and partner, 59-year-old Aildes de Souza.

The household system, consisting of a solar collector, water tanks and pipes, costs nearly 1,000 dollars for a family of four or five to provide about 400 litres of hot water a day, he estimated.

It began to be used in the 1970s, but spread after the blackout crisis which led to power rationing measures between July 2001 and February 2002 and drove up its price, in this country of 207 million people.

“Our turnover has multiplied fivefold since then,” said De Souza. Maxtemper secured a contract with the state-owned Energy Company of Minas Gerais (Cemig) to install 14,000 heaters in new houses built by government social programmes.

At its height, the company had 110 employees. That number has been reduced to seven due to the economic recession that has plagued Brazil over the three last years, which forced many companies into bankruptcy. “We survived because there are still consumers seeking to save electricity and money,” said Vaz.

The use of solar radiation, not always taken into account in official reports on energy use, also benefits the entire national power grid, by replacing electric shower heaters, which are widely used in Brazil.

Electric showers consume a great deal of energy and trigger a peak in energy demand in the early evening, when most of the population takes showers, requiring an increased supply capacity.

Five per cent of households in Brazil – 3.4 million – already have solar heated water, according to the Brazilian Association of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning, Ventilation and Heating.

In most gas stations in Brazil, consumers can choose at the pump either gasoline and ethanol fuel, whose price is appealing when it does not exceed 70 per cent of the price of gas, to compensate for its lower efficiency. The fall in gas prices led to a reduction in the use of biofuel and that aggravated pollution in cities such as São Paulo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

In most gas stations in Brazil, consumers can choose at the pump either gasoline and ethanol fuel, whose price is appealing when it does not exceed 70 per cent of the price of gas, to compensate for its lower efficiency. The fall in gas prices led to a reduction in the use of biofuel and that aggravated pollution in cities such as São Paulo. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Brazil ranks first in Latin America and fifth in the world in installed capacity of solar power for heating water – an aspect that tends to be ignored by the statistics because electricity is not generated and the solar collectors are somewhat different from photovoltaic panels.

Mexico ranks a distant second in a region that underutilises solar heating, which globally prevented the emission of 130 million tons of carbon in 2016, according to a study by the International Energy Agency (AIE).

The different uses of solar energy allow cities to go from mere consumers and wasters of energy to generators of a part of their energy needs.

Rooftops with photovoltaic panels could provide up to 32 per cent of the world cities’ electricity demand by 2050, the AIE projects in its report Energy Technology Perspectives 2016.

“Buildings used to be passive resource consuming spaces, but with the new concepts and policies they have become active in generating electricity,” Rodrigo Sauaia, head of the Brazilian Photovoltaic Solar Energy Association, told IPS.

Large cities in Latin America stand out in rankings as among the most sustainable or green in the world, but that is in large part due to the consumption of renewable energies, especially hydropower, which is abundant in this region, as a result of national policies.

But city governments have no or little influence on hydropower, with the exception of Colombia, with its traditional municipal utilities, such as the power company in Medellín, which owns 25 hydroelectric plants.

“Brazil has passed a groundbreaking law in Latin America, allowing electricity from distributed generation to be injected into the power grid, said Mauro Passos, head of the Institute for the Development of Alternative Energies (Ideal).

This 2012 measure gave rise to a photovoltaic boom, since it allowed distributed or decentralised generators, small residential or business plants mainly devoted to self-consumption, to sell their surplus, contributing to the social generation of energy.

The National Agency of Electric Power regulator projects that by 2024 Brazil will have over 800,000 households generating their own electricity. “And this is a conservative goal,” said Sauaia.

Currently, there are only 12,520 distributed generation photovoltaic systems connected to the grid, with a capacity of 100 MW; 42 per cent are households.

The headquarters of the Latin American Energy Organisation (Olade) in Quito, which brings together 27 countries in the region, is supplied with solar energy through photovoltaic panels installed on the building, in an initiative to promote the use and generation of solar energy among the country member’s public institutions. Credit: : Mario Osava/IPS

The headquarters of the Latin American Energy Organisation (Olade) in Quito, which brings together 27 countries in the region, is supplied with solar energy through photovoltaic panels installed on the building, in an initiative to promote the use and generation of solar energy among the country member’s public institutions. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Belo Horizonte, a city of 2.5 million, is the champion in generation of solar power for water heating, as well as for electricity. Its 210 solar plants include the ones in the Mineirão football stadium and the seat of government of Minas Gerais, which have panels on their roofs.

In addition, the urban waste in a sanitary landfill generates 4.2 MW of power with the gases that feed an electric plant, said Marcio de Souza, an engineer withEfficientia, a company created by Cemig to promote energy efficiency.

Distributed solar generation is a decision by consumers, whether families or companies.

Energy companies, such as Cemig, “only absorb the generated energy”, which is why distributed generation involves aspects such as the investment capacity of families, cost of conventional energy, levels of solar radiation and whether or not there is a favourable climate, Souza explained to IPS.

But the distributors can offer incentives, such as the Photovoltaic Bonus – a 60 per cent subsidy – launched this year by the state Electric Plants of Santa Catarina (Celesc), with a goal for the installation of 1,000 residential plants in the state of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil.

“Seven minutes after opening up the registration we already had 200 candidates for the Florianópolis quota”, the capital of the state, with a population of half a million, Marcio Lautert, head of Celesc’s Energy Efficiency Projects, told IPS.

“The expense to consumers is amortised in two or three years” with the electricity generated, Lautert said. Many other interested parties will be able to join in 2018 if the first group is successful, he added.

Quito’s system of trolleys with a dedicated lane was celebrated for reducing pollution in Ecuador’s capital. But the buses driven through overhead electric rails have been replaced by diesel motor vehicles, because they cost less. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Quito’s system of trolleys with a dedicated lane was celebrated for reducing pollution in Ecuador’s capital. But the buses driven through overhead electric rails have been replaced by diesel motor vehicles, because they cost less. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

But consumption is the area where the municipalities are changing the most, trying to reduce costs, pollution and social problems.

Some examples are vehicles replacing polluting fuels with electricity, LED public lighting, and traffic lights activated with solar panels, which have already been installed in many cities, such as San José, the capital of Costa Rica.

Montevideo, a model of electric mobility

Electric taxis are already circulating in many Latin American capitals, such as Bogotá, Mexico City, Montevideo and Santiago, although the experiment has been flawed in some cases due to a shortage of charging stations and the solitude of the pioneers.

This is not the case in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, a country of 3.5 million people.

“I started to look at the numbers and I took the leap,” Alejandro Casas said, explaining his decision to buy an electric taxi in February.

The vehicle cost 63,000 dollars, but he is paying it off with a five-year loan. “The difference in price you pay each month with what you save in fuel. A taxi uses 1,200 or 1,300 pesos (between 41.5 and 45 dollars) of fuel per day – that’s more than 1,200 dollars a month – and with the electric taxi you pay nothing,” he told IPS.

Further down the line he will pay a fee, but it will be subsidised and the first taxi drivers to participate in the initiative told him that they spend less than 73 dollars a month in recharging. “That’s nothing,” said Casas, before pointing out other advantages such as the automatic transmission engine and the comfort of the taxi. “It’s awesome,” he concluded.

“Today, on the street, there are 12 electric taxis in Montevideo. In the following months another 12 will be incorporated, reaching a total of 24,” Fernando Costanzo, manager of the Market Sector of the national power utility, UTE, told IPS.

An UTE substation with four quick chargers, two points in Montevideo, others in the nearby department of Maldonado and promises of new ones along the highway that runs through Uruguay from Argentina to Brazil ensure that drivers – including those who operate the dozens of electric vehicles belonging to UTE – will be able to recharge their batteries.

The government of the department of Montevideo, population 1.4 million, also supports electric taxis by offering licenses at a preferential price, among other measures, as part of a strategic energy plan that promotes clean and innovative sources.

“The aim is to generate an initial critical mass which allows electric mobility to be introduced as a market option, since economically it is more convenient with no need for subsidies,” Gonzalo Márquez, from the Mobility Department of the Montevideo government’sTransport Division, told IPS.

The Montevideo government has contributed around 500,000 dollars to the promotion of electric mobility.

But some Latin American cities have also suffered setbacks. Air pollution in São Paulo worsened when the difference in prices spurred consumption of gasoline to the detriment of ethanol, which is less polluting than fossil fuels. Another example is Quito, where the celebrated trolleys were replaced by diesel driven buses, because they are cheaper.

With reporting by Verónica Firme in Montevideo.

 
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