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Working Wonders: Revolutionizing Rural Power Supply in Brazil with Renewables
By Paul McKay.
Fabio Rosa © Paul McKay
A Brazilian engineer has discovered elegantly simple solutions to Third World energy, poverty and pollution problems. They are already working wonders.
RIO GRANDE DE SUL, BRAZIL - A century after electricity replaced steam and changed the way the modern world works, two billion of Planet Earth's people, including 25 million in rural Brazil, are still waiting for their own supply of precious power to pump water, provide light, run machines, refrigerate food, even access the Internet. Fabio Rosa has a brilliant plan to bring it to them - by uniting space-age technology and a solar engine 93 million miles away.
His solar-electric panels, which use a flat, glass-covered board of silicon circuits to convert sunlight into a steady trickle of low-voltage power, are not new. During the past two decades, as output efficiency climbed and costs fell, photovoltaic technology spread from NASA space shuttles to remote cottage or lodge rooftops, recreational vehicles, highway warning signs, even portable calculators.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosa was pioneering ways to bring electricity to Brazilian farm families who were either too far from power lines, or too poor to pay for it, or both. Battling Brazil's notorious bureaucracies, entrenched utility mindsets, and a belief that electric power can only be provided by massive power plants and high-voltage distribution lines, the soft-spoken engineer and agronomist proved there was a simpler, quicker, cheaper way to get the job done.
Mr. Rosa did that by focussing on what rural Brazilians needed the power for. In most cases, the priority was to pump water for cattle and irrigation because those underpinned their only income. Next came power for small machines such as grain grinders, light to read by, and power for a radio, cell phone charger, and tv set.
With his ever-present notebook and pen, Mr. Rosa and his colleagues calculated the power needs of hundreds of farms, then devised a low-cost, lower-voltage way to extend the grid to several hundred thousand rural homes. Costly concrete poles, aluminum insulators, and expensive, lethargic utility staff were replaced by poles made from local trees, cheaper ceramics, and labour supplied by the recipient farmers. All were possible because his simple single-wire system precisely matched the low voltage demand.
Those innovations were replicated in districts all across Brazil, bringing power for the first time to a quarter million rural homes. Mr. Rosa was hailed as a hero by many, and treated as a dangerous heretic by Brazil's electric industry establishment. It took a decade for bureaucrats to finally bestow official code status on his low-cost system. Until then, it was officially illegal.
But Mr. Rosa was far from satisfied. During that decade, he had witnessed endemic rural poverty and ecological degradation to his native pampas region of southern Brazil. There, open range cattle and sheep grazing were farmers' best hope for incomes - but the livestock was also overgrazing, polluting watersheds, and trampling river habitats and the last remnants of native forests.
That's when he had his second epiphany - one typically later cross-calibrated to his methodical calculations. He discovered that a single solar panel, battery, and basic low-voltage system could match the household demand of off-grid rural farm families. A second panel could power a small, high-efficiency fridge.
Those panels not only made the giant, debt-ridden dam and distribution system which dominated Brazil irrelevant, the 12-volt system even eclipsed the need to extend the simpler grid network he had devised. Because of a perennially sun-rich climate, power could be made, farm by farm, where it was used. Batteries would store it. The fuel charge would be zero. Forever.
He did a second set of calculations, and discovered that off-grid farm families were spending an average of $13 per month on kerosene lamp fuel, diesel generator fuel, candles and endless batteries. At the same time, newly privatized local utilities were charging about $6,000 (all figures in U.S. dollars) just to hook up a new rural farm to the district system. Monthly bills would then follow. Forever.
The comparative economics sent a jolt through Mr. Rosa. Connecting to the grid and using its power for the next two decades would cumulatively cost each farm more than $20,000. But his small company could install a single solar panel, battery, household wiring, lights, plugs and monitoring processor for $1,100. A second $400 solar panel could be added to refrigerate.
For farming, a third panel could be moved by truck or tractor to pump water to thirsty livestock, while also electrifying fencing to protect rivers from polluting animals and maximize grazing efficiency. Mr. Rosa says one 50 watt solar panel can power 100 subdivided paddocks totalling 300 hectares. The total cost for the basic farm fence system would be about $1,500 including the panel, battery, charge controller, fencing wire, insulators and fiberglass fence poles.
Checking his figures with farmers and other agronomists, Mr. Rosa discovered an even more elating equation: the portable paddock system could triple meat and milk production per hectare per animal, because the fencing could be moved within ranches in rotation cycles. The livestock manure would fertilize fields where they grazed, not end up in rivers where they once watered.
"If you divide the fields into paddocks, you can increase the production of meat and milk from cattle, water buffalo and sheep - all livestock," says Mr. Rosa. "You can't do that with normal fencing. It is too expensive, and takes too much time (to build). But you can easily move solar electric fences to any place, any time."
Most astonishing, the farmer's extra income would more than offset the capital and operating cost of the solar-electric system. Suddenly, Mr. Rosa had a technology and price package which could help reverse the exodus of poor rural Brazilians to urban slums. And that package could be replicated throughout Brazil, even in much of the Third World, where the sun is a perennial, prime asset.
"Right now, there are two billion people in the world who don't have (electric power) because they can't make the investment to purchase. They are too poor. But they can pay a monthly fee, then generate more income each month than they pay. After five years, they can afford another panel. So that's our business plan."
With tireless energy, alluring equations, and a stipend from an international foundation called Ashoka, Mr. Rosa re-defined himself as a 'social entrepreneur' and set out to vanquish the last obstacle to his plan: obtaining the capital funds to put a pilot program in place.
That's now a done deal. Thanks to a grant of $50,000 from the U.S. Solar Development Foundation, 42 rural solar systems have now been installed in Brazil's most southern state. That pool of money was loaned, in 42 contracts, to the farm families who are obligated to repay the $1,100 capital cost in monthly instalments of about $10. That will take an average of about seven years. But the life expectancy of the solar systems is 20 years, so the monthly fee will decrease for the remainder.
The Brazilian farmers don't own the solar systems. They lease them on monthly payment plans just as North Americans lease cell phones or a car. The monthly fee includes servicing, but the low-voltage solar systems are so reliable and safe, they rarely need attention. As Mr. Rosa's lean, low-profit company recoups the money, most is used to buy new solar systems which are then leased to new customers.
A tour of three farm installations indicates that solar power is also increasing incomes, and giving newfound pride to rural Brazilian families emerging from perpetual poverty.
In one, a tobacco-farming couple with two young children have tripled their income in only a few months. The solar power operates a pump to irrigate 5 hectares of corn, vegetables and tobacco, and provide household water. It also powers a temperature sensor on the tobacco furnace used to dry the leaves, and a scrounged 12-volt motor formerly used for operating car electric windows.
In an example of the makeshift genius which can be grafted onto simple, low-voltage systems, 21-year old tobacco farmer Adilson Moura rigged the temperature sensor to the cannibalized car window motor to control the furnace air intake door. That keeps the drying temperature constant. Using far less wood, his family now produces top grade tobacco leaves which earn triple the standard price.
That extra income far exceeds the monthly solar system lease fee; more savings come from using far less eucalyptus firewood to dry the tobacco. An added bonus, say both parents proudly, is that their children can now do their homework by high quality light instead of a kerosene lamp. Soon, a second panel will arrive to refrigerate food.
At the Filomena Gomes farm a few kilometers away, two solar panels wired together provide shared power for adjacent modest houses on a small plot of land shared by an extended family. The ability to pump water for a cash crop operation has prompted part of the family to return to the land, which they had left seeking futile work in the state capital, Porto Alegre.
The system powers a small tv on which to watch the soccer games and soap-operas most Brazilians seem to crave, and light for a young boy, Wilhem, to study by. Also new is an indoor toilet and tap, which invoke obvious pride. As if to bless the new way of life, a statue of the Virgin Mary rests on the sealed plastic case enclosing the solar system battery. The same living room altar greets visitors to the next solar-powered farm down the dirt road.
As innately modest as he is affable, Fabio Rosa is quick to insist that his company colleagues, and those involved in a parallel foundation called IDEAAS, get much of the credit for the solar-powered successes which are occurring in Brazil. His work has won admiration, international prizes, glowing endorsements from foundations, and even a PBS Television profile hosted by Robert Redford.
But he deflects most praise, and remains hungry to replicate the promising technology and tactics he has devised. His first target is the rest of rural Brazil. Then much of South America, then Africa and Asia. The key, he says, is to obtain capital from international investors, then deploy it so that it produces the highest yield for the lowest cost.
His investment formula doesn't sound much different from that of a Bay Street broker, or mutual fund manager. Indeed, Mr. Rosa is convinced small-scale capitalism and competition help produce agile ideas and technologies which can be harnessed for the common good. Bureaucracies are anathema to him - both governmental and corporate. Even heavy reliance on foundations and philathropists is unwise, he says.
So the next stage is to enlist international investors to finance his planned solar expansion efforts. Putting together a kind of alternative IPO, and finding a respected U.S or European underwriter, is his current focus.
But Mr. Rosa is not in it for the money. He only wants financing from those who agree that optimum 'yields' must include a return for investors, but also human improvement, economic independence, reduced poverty and pollution, and entrance into the modern world for those denied it for so long. That's his equation for success.
"The sun is shining for this project, for this new business model," Mr. Rosa insists, flashing the radiant smile which perennially greets the rural Brazilians he serves. "Solar energy is not expensive if it is leased as an energy service, instead of sold as a machine. That way millions can live in the modern world instead of the 19th Century."
Last Updated: Monday, November 01, 2010 at 2:58:57 PM