Site icon Conservation news

In the Brazilian Amazon, solar energy brings light — and new opportunities

  • A village on the banks of Brazil’s Negro River is running 132 solar panels as part of a pilot project aimed at bringing clean energy and economic opportunity to remote communities in the Amazon.
  • The scheme promises to bring reliable energy to the community of Santa Helena do Inglês, in northern Amazonas state, addressing frequent power cuts that have long plagued the remote village and thwarted efforts to develop sustainable income streams.
  • The solar energy supply is helping the community — a former logging hub that now lies within a protected reserve — generate income from fishing and ecotourism, without encroaching on the forest.

SANTA HELENA DO INGLÊS, Brazil — In a small clearing at the edge of the rainforest, two rows of solar panels gleam in the scorching late-morning sun. In a shed nearby, inverters hum quietly as they turn the sunlight into electricity, powering a church, a school and a few dozen homes in the village of Santa Helena do Inglês, in the Brazilian Amazon.

The solar energy also powers a heavy freezer tucked inside Pedro Vidal de Mendonça’s tiny grocery store, a few meters above the banks of the Negro River in Amazonas state, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the state capital, Manaus. Mendonça stores freshly caught fish in it, freezing his supplies until potential buyers show up to the village by motorboat.

“When they ask, ‘Mr. Pedro, do you have any peacock bass’ — there it is!” Mendonça says as he gestures toward the freezer whirring in the back corner of the wooden kiosk that serves as his store. He sells his fish for about 50-60 reais ($9-$10) apiece. “That’s how I earn my living,” he tells Mongabay proudly.

Things weren’t always so simple in Santa Helena do Inglês, a riverside village that is home to about 130 people. Until a few months ago, energy came and went with little warning.

“We went 12 days without electricity before,” Mendonça says, adding the power outage occurred after a felled tree knocked down a power line in the middle of the forest. He remembers praying for his stockpile of ice not to run out, so that he wouldn’t lose some 800 reais ($144) in merchandise.

Santa Helena do Inglês, a village on the banks of the Negro River in Amazonas state, in the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Pongelupe/Fundação Amazônia Sustentável.
Pedro Vidal de Mendonça, who runs a small grocery store in the Santa Helena do Inglês village, is among those who have benefitted from a new project bringing solar energy to the community. Now, he is able to freeze the fish he catches, improving his sales. The pilot scheme aims to bring reliable energy supply to communities in the Amazon, while also paving the way for sustainable economic growth. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Santa Helena do Inglês is one of 19 villages scattered across the Negro River Sustainable Development Reserve, or RDS, a vast protected area spanning 103,000 hectares (254,000 acres) across Amazonas state. Like most of the villages here, it is only reachable by boat, a couple of hours’ journey past river islands and submerged clusters of rainforest.

For years, the community’s remote location meant electricity was sporadic and outages were frequent, residents say. But in June, the village received 132 solar panels, 54 lithium batteries and nine hybrid inverters, installed as part of a new project aiming to bring reliable and clean energy to people living in remote corners of Amazonas state.

The hope is that the pilot scheme will better people’s lives while paving the way for sustainable economic growth, says Virgilio Viana, superintendent at the nonprofit Foundation for Amazon Sustainability (FAS by its Portuguese acronym), which is financing the project in partnership with Brazilian lithium battery maker Unicoba.

“Our vision is to generate prosperity and economic opportunity, while keeping the forest standing,” Viana tells Mongabay in a phone interview from Manaus. “We see this as a promising solution. We can say that there are paths to a truly sustainable Amazon.”

Santa Helena do Inglês received a set of new solar panels in June 2021, as part of a new FAS pilot project that aims to bring reliable energy supply to the community. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Pongelupe/Fundação Amazônia Sustentável.

Even though Brazil is one of the sunniest countries in the world, solar energy accounts for only 2% of its energy mix, according to government data. The Amazon, bathed in intense sunlight almost year-round, is seen by experts as especially promising ground for harnessing solar power. The region also has much to gain: researchers estimate that nearly 1 million people in the Brazilian Amazon still live without grid electricity, relying on generators or living in the dark.

While steep prices made solar technology inaccessible in the past, falling costs are increasingly making its use more mainstream, data from the Brazilian Solar Energy Association shows. In some cases, it could offer savings over the costly logistics of bringing conventional electricity to far-flung parts of the Amazon, stakeholders argued in a 2019 report.

Solar energy can also eliminate the environmental costs that often come with linking remote communities in the rainforest to Brazil’s energy grid, Viana says. Power lines can fragment forests, opening them up to land grabbing, destroying wildlife habitat, and creating a fire risk, he adds.

“You have all these negative environmental impacts,” he says. “And on top of that, because of where these communities are located, the power is unreliable, it’s always going out.”

To test the potential for solar energy in the Amazon, FAS plans to eventually install panels in four other communities in Amazonas state, including Boa Frente in the Juma RDS, Bauana in the Uacari RDS, and in the Munduruku Indigenous village in Nova Olinda do Norte municipality.

If these pilot programs show promising results, Viana says he hopes they can provide a tested blueprint for a government solar scheme with wider reach across the region. “It’s a logical and reliable power supply that will not fail. It makes sense for communities in the Amazon.”

Santa Helena do Inglês received a set of new solar panels in June 2021 as part of a new project aiming to bring reliable and clean energy to people living in remote corners of Amazonas state. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

A shift to sustainability

Once a hub for illegal logging, Santa Helena do Inglês only recently took its first steps toward sustainability.

When Mendonça’s family arrived half a century ago, there was nothing but rainforest here. He says they razed a plot of land to build a house; before long, others came trickling in, establishing a village. The community lived from fishing and illegal logging, cutting down and selling the most prized tree varieties.

“This soccer field here — it was all forest. We cut it down with our own hands,” says Mendonça, whose family founded the village when he was 12 years old.

He says he earned his living as an illegal logger too and, at one point, he was even caught and fined by police for the crime. But it wasn’t enough to stop him. “That was my livelihood, that was how I fed my children.”

All that changed in 2008, when authorities turned thousands of hectares of forest around Santa Helena do Inglês into a protected reserve with the aim of preserving the rich biodiversity of the area, which is home to rare and threatened species, such as the bush dog (Speothos venaticus).

“The time came for us to stop,” Mendonça says. “And it was tough. I thought to myself, ‘My God, how am I supposed to stop? How will I live, how will I support myself and my family?’”

With the help of FAS, the community started expanding its small fishing industry and investing in tourism, in a bid to build a more sustainable local economy. In 2014, the women in the community opened an ecolodge, a wooden villa painted lime green and bright blue. They started welcoming small groups of visitors eager to be closer to nature and experience life in this corner of the Amazon.

But the unreliable electricity supply posed a challenge. Energy first came to Santa Helena do Inglês in 2012, residents say, as part of the “Luz para Todos (Light for All)” program, a push by the federal government to bring electricity to millions of rural Brazilians. For the first time, water could be drawn from the community well with an electric water pump, and teachers could hold classes in the evenings, according to residents.

With the help of FAS, in a bid to build a more sustainable local economy, the community invested in tourism, and the women opened an ecolodge, a wooden villa painted lime green and bright blue, welcoming visitors eager to be closer to nature. Image courtesy of Rodolfo Pongelupe/Fundação Amazônia Sustentável.

Even then, the village suffered near-constant power cuts thanks to its remote location, says Nelson Brito, president of the community. “We had this source of energy. But … because Manaus is really far from our community, the power lines ran through the forest. So whenever there was a storm and trees fell, we would be left without power.”

The faltering electricity supply hampered the community’s efforts to build new livelihoods. Business at the ecolodge was hit especially hard, as power outages upset guests and drove them out, says Osiana Rodrigues de Mendonça, who now runs the ecolodge.

“They left really angry and they never came back,” she says, looking out over the Negro River from the lodge’s spacious wooden deck. “It really hurt us, we lost income because of it. Because you need electricity for everything: to make juice, to bake a cake.”

But with the steady energy supplied by the solar panels, things have changed, she says. Tucked in the fridge, the food for the guests doesn’t spoil anymore. Cooling fans help visitors sleep through the night, easing the Amazon’s stifling heat and keeping the swarms of mosquitoes away. Now, the lodge keepers are making big plans for the approaching tourist season.

“We are very hopeful,” Osiana says confidently. She says she’s planning improvements, like a new lounge area where hammocks will be slung for visitors. “We want to achieve more with the lodge, for sure — we want to bring more tourists.”

The solar energy project could also help strengthen the local fishing industry, which has only provided seasonal income to residents until now, Viana says. Without freezers they could rely on, fishermen were forced to sell all their catch during peak fishing season, when there’s a glut of supply and prices are therefore lower. With the season over, earnings dried up.

“At the height of the season, the fish is worth 30 reais [$5]. Off-season, the price is 10 times higher,” Viana says. FAS plans to help fishermen buy freezers where they can store their catch. Then they can check market prices over the internet and decide when to sell, he adds. “That way, we can double or triple the fishermen’s income.”

The solar energy project could also help strengthen the local fishing industry, which has only provided seasonal income to residents until now. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

Brito says it will take time for the full economic impacts of the solar project to be felt in Santa Helena do Inglês. But he says he hopes the scheme will have a positive impact — in the village and beyond.

“It is important to have this energy here in the community not only to improve the quality of life for people here but also for the planet. Because it’s clean energy that doesn’t harm the environment.”

For Mendonça, the energy generated by the solar panels has already been a game changer. “It’s made a huge difference already,” he says, waving toward the panels. “Now, as long as the sun is shining, we know that the power won’t go out.”

Banner image: Nelson Brito, president of the community Santa Helena do Inglês, stands in front of  a set of new solar panels installed in the village in June 2021. The project aims to better people’s lives while paving the way for sustainable economic growth in the village, which lies within the Rio Negro Sustainable Development Reserve in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Ana Ionova for Mongabay.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.