Solar Energy Advances in the Amazon. But why so slowly?

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For the 80 residents of Vila Limeira, just less than a year ago, the installation of a solar system in their community made it possible to turn on a fan to cool off, drink a glass of cold water or access the internet at home in Amazonas.

The riverside settlement in the Médio Purus nature reserve in the Brazilian state of Amazonas was founded in the 1950s, but until recently only received electricity for three hours a day. It was powered by a diesel generator that used 300 liters of fuel a month and cost 2,000 reais (US$428).

In June 2021 the Vila Limeira 100% solar energy The project connected 35 buildings, including homes, a community center, a church and a school, to a small solar power plant, making the community the first in this southern corner of the Amazon to have 24-hour access to renewable energy.

“We lived in a kind of isolation. And most of the communities around us still live in isolation, because even to communicate we need energy,” said Napoleão Oliveira, president of the local residents’ association.

Napoleāo Oliveira (right) says solar energy has helped connect his communities and others (Image: WWF/ Alessandra Mathyas)

Vila Limeira is located in Labrea, one of the 251 locations in the country that are not connected to the National Interconnected System (SIN) – the grid that distributes over 95% of the country’s electricity – and therefore require independent power generation. With the exception of Fernando de Noronha in Pernambuco, all of these locations are in the legal Amazon, the region spanning nine states in the Amazon Basin.

The energy from the different large hydroelectric power plants The water built along rivers in the Amazon over the past decade has not been used to supply the region, but has been distributed across the country. Large areas in the states of Amazonas, Pará, Acre, Rondônia and Roraima lack the infrastructure to connect to the national system. In these places over 90% of the generated energy comes from diesel. “This energy is more expensive and more polluting,” says Alessandra Mathyas, conservation analyst at WWF Brazil, the organization responsible for the Vila Limeira project.

99%

of the 1 million people in Brazil without access to electricity live in the legal Amazon

Around 1 million people in Brazil live without access to electricity, and 990,000 live according to Legal Amazon estimates by the Institute for Energy and Environment (IEMA), a Brazilian non-profit organization. That Luz for Todos (Light for All) program, which started in 2003, has managed to bring electricity to 14 million people nationwide, but remote communities in this region have remained, according to IEMA.

So now is the latest phase focused on the Amazon. The federal government has rented a regional concessionaire to install solar panels in remote areas around the Amazon capital, Manaus, and six municipalities along the Purus River, such as Lábrea, where the region is located new frontier of deforestation goes on.

The potential for solar power generation in the Amazon is becoming clearer, although infrastructure development is slow. “Politics are good. The implementation is something else. The numbers are still almost insignificant,” said Ciro Campos, adviser to the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian human rights organization. “The program is not running as it should.”

Solar a sustainable alternative for Amazon

Mathyas explains that “the best and cheapest” option would be to invest in distributed solar power generation in the Amazon. Distributed energy is the energy generated by the consumers themselves. Not only does this help avoid greenhouse gas emissions, but it also reduces the risks of deforestation as the energy is generated close to where it is consumed and requires infrastructure with a lower impact. A complement to solar power, especially for remote communities, Mathyas suggests, would be biomass power generated from waste and leftovers such as acai seeds.

The government’s 10-year energy expansion plan, launched in early April, reports 363% growth in distributed generation predicted by 2031. In March the country surpassed the mark of 10 gigawatts (GW) of installed decentralized capacity – ten times more than three years ago and 99% of it solar energy. However, only 634,000 kilowatts or 6% of this comes from the northern region of the country, which includes most of the states in the legal Amazon official data.

Investing in reducing electricity bills has become a good investment. This is fundamental to the democratization of solar energy

This recent boom in the sector in Brazil may be related to the approval of the Legal framework for distributed generation. That final text has yet to be reviewed by Congress, but the forecast is that subsidies for these types of projects will eventually be cut starting in 2023.

“That also causes a race. It is the year of the “doomsday” [for solar microgeneration]“Said Alexandre Henklain, coordinator of the Roraima Renewable Energy Forum.

On the other hand, the adoption of the legal framework has brought more legal certainty to the sector, according to Ricardo Baitelo, project leader of the IEMA. This, combined with new funding lines, tax incentives and the deep drought that has made power generation more expensive in Brazil, until recentlyhelp explain the current moment for decentralized solar power generation.

“Investing in reducing electricity bills has turned out to be a good investment. This is fundamental to the democratization of solar energy,” said Baitelo.

One of the most important tax incentives is aimed at the foreign market, since Brazil currently relies on imports of solar systems, mainly from China. From May the import tax on solar panels will be cut halved – a stimulus that should revitalize an already heated market. Between 2012 and 2021 the value of solar panel imports jumped from $5.5 million to $2.3 billion, almost entirely in purchases from China. Although at a much lower volume, the same trend occurred in Legal Amazon, whose imports rose from $31,000 to $13 million.

Solar energy of social importance

One of the new funding lines a loan offer by BNDES, the national development bank, for consumers in the north region to install solar panels. The pilot program Amazônia Social intends to fund 1,600 installations over the next few years.

Funding could support projects in remote areas that are already spreading across the region. CEAPS, a socio-environmental NGO, has brought solar energy to over 100 households as well as schools, community and health centers in the Tapajós Reserve in the western state of Pará. Elsewhere ISA Furnished Photovoltaic systems in 80 villages of the Xingu indigenous territory in the state of Mato Grosso.

The Amazônia Sustentável Foundation (FAS) is coordinating the installation of photovoltaic systems in riverside communities in the state of Amazonas, which will help promote tourism and fisheries, and help power small vegetable oil processing plants.

The latest system was installed ten months ago in the municipality of Santa Helena do Inglês, where Rio Negro Reservation, near Manaus. There, solar energy provides lighting for the streets, the community center, a church and a soccer field, as well as the homes of the 96 residents.

“The aim is to reduce the use of fossil fuels from diesel generators [in the community] by 50%,” explains Gabriela Sampaio, who coordinates the program for FAS.

Although solar energy initiatives in remote Amazon regions are not representative of the national statistics, they have an unmissable importance today, argues André Frazão Teixeira, a PhD student in energy systems planning at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), São Paulo.

“From a social point of view, these projects are very important,” says Teixeira, because they “combine economic development with sustainable development.”

Solar systems win in the Amazon

Centralized power generation, connected to the national system, has also progressed with the construction of a number of new solar plants in Brazil. From 2017 to February of this year, the installed capacity increased almost fivefold to 4.7 GW Absolutely, the Federal Association of the Solar Industry. However, this rapid progress did not take place in the states of the legal Amazon.

Amazonas is the state with the greatest lack of energy infrastructure: nearly 40% of the nation’s off-grid locations are in the state. But the recent admission of tax incentivesand the start of the state’s largest solar energy project could change that reality.

We have an energy security issue, a political issue, and also an economic issue for the advancement of solar photovoltaic energy in the Amazon

The Amazonas Renewable Energy Cooperative (CooperSol) has inaugurated two of the three planned solar power plants for the capital Manaus. The first became operational in 2021 and generates energy for 92 homes, while the second, launched in February, benefited 50 people.

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