A Brazilian solar initiative serves as model to better the lives of world’s poorest

My Clean Break column this weekend takes a look at the efforts of Brazilian social entrepreneur Fabio Rosa and how, with the donation of 560 solar panels from Canadian Solar Solutions, a subsidiary of Canadian Solar Inc., impoverished villages in the Amazon will soon get a clean, reliable source of power for keeping lights on, pumping clean water, and keeping medicine, vaccines and food cooled. This initiative demonstrates clearly how solar, beyond simply adding more renewable energy to the power mix of developed countries, has the potential to directly improve the well-being of millions of individuals around the world living on a few dollars or less per month.

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Tyler Hamilton

A number of impoverished villages in Brazil’s Amazonia region will soon receive a life-changing Christmas present from Canada.

As you read this a shipping container full of 560 solar panels is en route to Brazil aboard the cargo ship MSC Santhya. The panels, worth nearly $1 million (when shipping and delivery costs are factored in), were donated by Canadian Solar Solutions Inc. and manufactured out of the company’s new facility in Guelph.

Once these made-in-Ontario panels arrive in Brazil, they will be transported to a handful of villages and, come spring 2012, installed atop schools, hospitals, and water-pumping stations. The power they produce will be used directly, or stored in golf-cart batteries so the energy from the sun can be used at night.

It’s all part of a program started in 2001 by Brazilian social entrepreneur Fabio Rosa, who, along with help from Canadian investigative journalist Paul McKay, are on a mission to bring clean water, light, refrigeration, basic communications and, ultimately, better health and education to some of the poorest people on the planet.

McKay was a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen when he travelled to Brazil in 2004 to do a series of stories. It was there that he met Rosa and learned about how something as simple as a solar panel could have such a profound impact on the lives of so many.

Solar may have a growing role to play in cleaning up Ontario’s electricity system, creating green jobs, and helping homeowner reduce their environmental footprint – and their guilt.

But in these remote Brazilian communities with no connection to a power grid, solar technology can both enrich and save lives. Medicine, vaccines and food can be kept cool 24 hours a day. Light can come from CFL bulbs and LEDs instead of kerosene lamps that emit toxic fumes indoors. Sun-powered pumps can supply a constant flow of clean water.

The problem is villagers typically make as little as $2 a day. “There are 20 million people in Brazil without access to electricity and they can’t afford the panels themselves,” explains McKay, who in “retirement” is now a green energy advocate running his own foundation that acts as a kind of North American ambassador to Rosa’s efforts.

“Most utilities there have been privatized and are not interested in going after tiny customers in remote places.”

Rosa is offering these villagers an alternative, but to be clear, he isn’t giving the technology away. What he has developed is a low-cost leasing model that makes the systems and the energy they produce accessible to the poor.

Typically, he will install a solar panel, a battery, a charge controller, a few lights, and a water pump in each home and then charge less than $15 a month for what, in essence, is the service this equipment provides.

Keep in mind that these individuals would already be paying $15 a month on candles, batteries, and kerosene that would no longer be required, so there is no additional financial burden. What they get in return, however, is a far better quality of life and work.

Something as simple as the ability to pump water automatically for a cash crop operation can also generate new income for villagers.

The panels supplied by Canadian Solar will go a step further. Instead of being used to support individual households, they will support entire villages by bringing power to schools, hospitals, central pumping stations and even Internet and cellphone stations.

Milfred Hammerbacher, president and chief executive of Canadian Solar Solutions, which is a subsidiary of Canadian Solar Inc., says the decision to get involved came in 2010 after McKay brought Rosa to the company’s factory for a presentation.

The company fell in love with the idea, recalls Hammerbacher.

“It was a great opportunity for us to help out,” he says. “On a personal level, it’s really why I got into the solar business in the first place. There are so many cases where a few solar panels can make such a huge difference in people’s lives.”

Next spring, the company will be sending down a team of employees to help install the systems.

McKay says the donation of so many panels is significant and takes Rosa’s program to a new level. It has taken years to install 300 systems, as Rosa could only raise enough money to purchase five to 10 panels at a time. He also has to raise funds for all the batteries, pumps and lights that go with each system.

He hopes that by having Canadian Solar show such good will, other suppliers and non-governmental organizations will step up to the plate. In that regard, McKay’s and Rosa’s next priority is to get a similarly large donation of batteries to go with the panels.

The potential is there to grow Rosa’s program throughout Latin America and into the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Indeed, that’s their plan.

It’s an idea that Hammerbacher finds appealing. “This is something we’d like to do on a long-term basis,” he says. “There are many other organizations like Rosa’s around the world that we’d like to support if we can.

“I hope a lot of other solar companies follow.”

NOTE: If you represent a company that would like to help fund or contribute solar panels, batteries, LED lights, water pumps and/or power electronics to Rosa’s initiative, please contact Paul McKay at paul@paulmckay.com

One thought on “A Brazilian solar initiative serves as model to better the lives of world’s poorest”

  1. An alternative to the FIT program? Brazil is also one of several countries trying out a new system of getting alternative energy companies to establish. In clean-energy auctions this year in Brazil, Uruguay and Peru, wind farm and solar park developers have won contracts to supply power at rates close to or below fossil fuel-based power.
    See: “India’s ‘Astonishing Auction’ Pushes Down Global Solar Price”
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-02/india-s-solar-power-bid-prices-sink-to-record-consultant-says.html

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