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Solar Energy, Vetoed as a Source of Income for the Poor in Brazil

A village with 9,144 solar panels about eight kilometers from Juazeiro, a city and municipality in Brazil's semi-arid Northeast region, hosts a failed electricity and income generation project, which for three years enabled investments in the urbanization and community development of the 1,000 resident families. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS - Brazilian regulation only allows “prosumers” (consumer producers) to deduct from their electricity bill the amount of energy generated and supplied to the distribution network, which is the basis for the development of community or distributed electricity

A village with 9,144 solar panels about eight kilometers from Juazeiro, a city and municipality in Brazil's semi-arid Northeast region, hosts a failed electricity and income generation project, which for three years enabled investments in the urbanization and community development of the 1,000 resident families. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

JUAZEIRO, Brazil , Jun 10 2024 (IPS) - “I feel like a mother who lost her son to drugs, to vice, destroying himself,” says Lucineide da Silva, 56, mother of eight children and grandmother of 11.

With her lost son, she symbolizes a novel solar energy project that used the roofs of a village built by the government programme “My House My Life” in Juazeiro, a municipality with 238,000 people in the state of Bahia, in the Northeast region of Brazil.

The 174 two-story buildings, totaling 1,000 family housing units, turned into a small power plant, with 9,144 photovoltaic panels installed on their roofs. With an output of 2.1 megawatts and the capacity to supply 3,600 low-consumption homes, the installation generated electricity from February 2014 to October 2016.

In addition to self-supply, each family in the village earned income from energy surpluses sold to the local power distribution company. Of this income, 60 per cent was distributed among the villagers and 10 per cent went to equipment maintenance.

The remaining 30 per cent of the profits were invested in Morada do Salitre and Praia do Rodeadouro, the two complexes the unnamed village was divided into for community administration.

Lucineide da Silva helped install the solar panels, having been trained with other residents of the two complexes that make up the unnamed village in northeastern Brazil. Her efficient work and passion for the project earned her the nickname “Galician of the panels”. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Lucineide da Silva helped install the solar panels, having been trained with other residents of the two complexes that make up the unnamed village in northeastern Brazil. Her efficient work and passion for the project earned her the nickname “Galician of the panels”. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Energy for community cohesion

This income enabled residents to urbanize the town, with trees, clean streets, speed bumps for vehicles and security officers. Also, two community centers were built, offering medical and dental care, as well as computer and sewing courses.

Such benefits helped build a real community, with a sense of belonging and social organization, the stated goal of the project, developed by the company Brasil Solair and financed by the Socio-environmental Fund of the Caixa Economica Federal, a state bank with social purposes.

“It’s the best of the My House My Life villages I know,” assured Toni José Bispo, 64, despite his criticism of the solar project. “I had no benefit, the panels break the tiles, better take them all off as a neighbor did,” said the food merchant, who built a store in the front yard of his house.

A Community Center built by one of the two complexes in the city of Juazeiro, with income from the sale of electricity. Computer and sewing courses, apart from doctors and dentists, were other benefits of the small photovoltaic power plant installed in the village in northeastern Brazil. Image: Mario Osava / IPS

A Community Center built by one of the two complexes in the city of Juazeiro, with income from the sale of electricity. Computer and sewing courses, apart from doctors and dentists, were other benefits of the small photovoltaic power plant installed in the village in northeastern Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

The useless photovoltaic panels have caused widespread complaints since October 2016, when the state-owned National Electric Energy Agency (Aneel) cancelled the license to operate the small power plant.

The project had been launched with a license from Aneel, with a three-year deadline for it to comply with the specific regulation for distributed generation, up to five megawatts and carried out by the consumers, who can produce energy for self-supply and not for sale.

Brazilian regulation only allows “prosumers” (consumer producers) to deduct from their electricity bill the amount of energy generated and supplied to the distribution network, which is the basis for the development of community or distributed electricity. Certain types of association, such as cooperatives, allow this benefit to be shared, but without commercial purposes.

With the non-compliance by Brasil Solair, a company that disappeared from the market, and Caixa Economica Federal, the 9,144 photovoltaic panels remain for the last eight years a sad reminder of the project that was to be the inspiration of other My House My Life communities, which since early 2019 has provided 7.7 million homes.

Toni José Bispo's small store, set up in front of his home, as is typical of the northeastern Brazilian town, has caused strong competition in a community with low demand and income. Image: Mario Osava / IPS

Toni José Bispo’s small store, set up in front of his home, as is typical of the northeastern Brazilian town, has caused strong competition in a community with low demand and income. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Social decay

The town, with an estimated population of almost 5,000, is evidently in decay. Aging, fading walls, broken or missing roof tiles, garbage in the streets that was not noticeable during IPS’ previous visit in June 2018, are the most apparent signs. Some panels also appear damaged.

Violence and drug trafficking are other side-effects that can be attributed, at least in part, to the impoverishment of the local community.

Nicknamed “the Galician of the panels” because she excelled in their installation, Lucineide da Silva is “proud” of working on the project, as one of the trained villagers, and dreams of its restoration.

“We have many poor families. Solar energy would help them with their expenses, to have air conditioning to counter the heat, that is strong here”, he said.

“This complex is better than others, it gets top marks, but if the project were active it would be a reference for everyone”, said Da Silva, who rejected offers to continue installing panels, because she would have to work far away. She prefers to take care of children and senior citizens.

Gilsa Martins was an administrator in one of the two complexes organized for community management. She failed in her attempt to restore the photovoltaic energy and income generation project, but did not lose hope of giving back to her community the benefits of distributed generation. Image: Mario Osava / IPS

Gilsa Martins was an administrator in one of the two complexes organized for community management. She failed in her attempt to restore the photovoltaic energy and income generation project, but did not lose hope of giving back to her community the benefits of distributed generation. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Gilsa Martins, who was a community administrator of the Morada do Salitre complex during the good years while the project was active, and the bad ones that followed, still hopes to restore it. At 66, she is willing to “return to Brasilia” to negotiate with the government, as she has done in the past.

The useless photovoltaic panels have caused widespread complaints since October 2016, when the state-owned National Electric Energy Agency (Aneel) cancelled the license to operate the small power plant

“Everything is deteriorating as a result of the neglect we are subjected to, with no support from the public administration,” she lamented. The computer and sewing courses are cancelled, and without the income from the solar power plant “we no longer have dentists or doctors here, since the public authorities don’t contribute anything,” she added.

The numerous stores in residential front yards reveal a lack of income sources. Many try to survive with informal businesses in a local market with insufficient demand. “Too much competition and not enough buyers,” Bispo said.

“The local population is sustained by the jobs offered by the irrigation districts, including young people who finish high school, but they have no opportunities in nearby commerce and industry,” he explained.

Juazeiro is at the center of an irrigated agriculture hub, with water from the São Francisco river pumped to seven irrigated districts or perimeters where the government settled small, medium and large farmers, and to large independent farms that stand out as the largest producers of mango and grapes for export.

Hired workers commute daily on buses from these companies and from the districts, generally subject to the seasonality of the fruit. “They are our salvation,” said Martins.

The Bolsa Familia, a government income transfer program, also “protects many unemployed mothers. That’s why we don’t go hungry here,” he said.

But people complain about inadequate transportation. They only have one bus to commute to the city of Juazeiro, the municipal capital, eight kilometers away. It is a common adversity among My House My Life communities, usually located far from the city and its urban infrastructure and services.

A roof with solar panels and transformers installed on a neighboring building. This equipment is going to waste since the small power plant was shut down in 2016. Brazilian restrictions on distributed or community generation make its restoration difficult. Image: Mario Osava / IPS

A roof with solar panels and transformers installed on a neighboring building. This equipment is going to waste since the small power plant was shut down in 2016. Brazilian restrictions on distributed or community generation make its restoration difficult. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Solar roofs

Complaints against photovoltaic panels are also widespread, assured Martins. “Many complain of holes in the roof and blame them on the panels, others want them removed,” he said.

“Since the panels were installed I’ve had leaks in the roof, draining down the walls. Then they spread to one room and the corridor, then to two rooms. My husband plugged them with cement. We have already lost a bed and a closet,” explained Josenilda dos Santos, 37 and with five children.

She remembers having received income from electricity only for three months, 280 reais (about 120 dollars at the time) the first time and only 3 per cent of that the last time. “I will take all of them off, since they are useless, they only heat the rooms,” she concluded.

“The sun, like water, is a common wealth, but only capital appropriates it. Solar roofs for decentralized electricity generation can generate income for the population and reduce poverty, especially in the countryside,” according to Roberto Malvezzi, a local activist with the Catholic Pastoral Land Commission.

The failure of the My House My Life pilot project hinders a promising path, in addition to wasting 9,144 panels already installed on the roofs.

 
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