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Electricity day and night: Solar power is changing isolated Amazon communities

Hairdressser Flávio Mateus do Santo de Sousa cutting the hair of a customer.

Hairdressser Flávio Mateus do Santo de Sousa cutting the hair of a customer. When growing up, his mother, Fátima Batista, had to study with candles at night. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

  • The Amazon region produces more than a quarter of the energy in Brazil. Still, hundreds of thousands of families are off the grid and rely on expensive diesel generators to produce electricity.
  • Solar panels and other renewable energies can greatly improve the lives of people in these regions and help create jobs.
  • NGOs and governments have implemented renewable energy plans in different communities in the Amazon with positive results.
  • Experts agree that public policies to provide electricity in the region should also be designed to help generate new sources of income for these communities.

TERRA FIRME, Brazil — Growing up, Maria de Fátima Batista often studied in the dark, using a candle or lantern for light because the riverine community where she lives in Brazil’s Amazon did not have electricity.

Today, aged 58, Batista, her family and the rest of the Terra Firme community, which sits by the banks of the Madeira River in Rondônia state, now have 24-hour electricity via solar panels and batteries, installed last year by local firm (re)energisa, the renewables arm of Brazil’s Energisa Group.

Her grandchildren don’t need a candle or lamp to study when it gets dark; she freezes foodstuffs, including the baked goods she sells, and the community now communicates in real time with local authorities.

“We can use the freezer, the TV, even the internet,” she told Mongabay while sitting at the family table on the patio of her redbrick home.

But for many other riverine and Indigenous communities living outside of major urban centers in Brazil’s Amazon, access to affordable, constant and clean electricity is still a major challenge.

People playing soccer.
Electricity has a profound impact on cultural practices in isolated communities, bringing fridges, recorded music and internet to daily activities. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

According to official data, some 425,000 families aren’t connected to the national electricity grid, which could likely be even higher given that the last census was in 2010.

Lack of access to the national grid has traditionally led unconnected communities in Brazil’s Amazon to adopt polluting and costly diesel generators, with already high fuel costs driven by distance, as substantial markups on diesel are common outside urban areas.

In effect, this usually means that energy is intermittent, causing interruptions to family and leisure activities as well as communications and small businesses.

Experts tout solar power’s potential to provide clean, constant, affordable energy for communities in the Amazon, but despite the growing scale and affordability, significant challenges remain.

Terra Firme was a rubber-tapping territory during the mid-19th century boom and today is home to 27 families who grow crops like manioc, banana, beans and sweet potato and produce flour to sell in the state capital Porto Velho.

Aerial view of Terra Firme.
Aerial view of Terra Firme. The artificial beach on the left is a consequence of illegal mining, with boats dredging the river in search of gold. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

It is a two-hour boat journey from Porto Velho along the Madeira River, which has become overrun with illegal gold miners in recent years. Mongabay witnessed dozens of mining dredging platforms in November, a visit that had logistical support from Porto Velho city hall via the superintendent for district development (SMD).

Each household in Terra Firme has an “autonomous” solar energy unit, composed of solar panels and batteries. Such infrastructure is sturdy, requiring little maintenance and more robust than power lines, which can be toppled by tropical storms, but is also of low impact, reducing deforestation risks.

On a Sunday morning, Batista’s son Flávio plugs a clipper into a socket on the wall and prepares to cut the hair of a young man sitting in a barber’s chair. Beside him, there is a board with a list of prices for different cuts and a WhatsApp number.

“A year ago, I was working in the city. Now that we have energy, my family and I are back,” he told Mongabay. “I came back to work here, and now I’m planning to expand my business.”

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Light for everyone

Different federal administrations in Brazil have tried to tackle the electricity access problem in the Amazon. In 2000, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso created a program called Luz no Campo (Light in the Countryside) to electrify rural areas in Brazil. The program was then upgraded and expanded in 2003, during Lula’s first term, when it was renamed Luz para Todos (Light for Everyone).

According to official figures from Nov. 22, more than 16 million people benefited from the program, which has been extended several times. More recently, in 2020, the far-right Bolsonaro administration launched Mais Luz para a Amazônia (More Light for the Amazon), a complementary program created specifically to deliver solar energy to families living in the Amazon.

This last program has provided solar panels to Batista and others in Terra Firme. According to the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy, 8,828 units had been installed by Nov. 22, benefiting around 35,000 people, costing $508 million reais ($98 million). By 2030, the project is expected to reach more than 850,000 people.

In Rondônia, Energisa group is responsible for delivering the program’s solar kits and for their maintenance. Energisa’s system allows energy storage via batteries charged during the day to use at night. The families now pay a monthly electricity bill via an app provided by the company, Voltz, which also acts as a fintech bank, offering credit and other financial services of traditional banks.

“From the moment you bring in electricity, other things come along,” Gustavo Buiatti, director of development, business and technology at (re)energisa, told Mongabay by video call, while touting the small business opportunities. “These days, residents pay for their energy, which is cheaper and cleaner, using an app on their phone,” he said.

Fátima Batista at home.
Autonomous solar power kits were a revolution in Fátima Batista’s home, in Terra Firme. The isolated community now can use the internet and freeze food. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Energisa also has a project in the neighboring state of Acre, near the border with Peru, in a community called Vila Restauração, which combines solar panels with biodiesel generators. The project won a prize at the Solar & Storage Live Awards in 2022 for the best international solar panel project.

Buiatti claims that the project can be replicated and transferred anywhere in the world. Community members are trained for maintenance, creating extra income and autonomy.

“With this system, they are the guardians of their own community,” he said. However, Batista said no one in her community has been trained to fix the panels and that it is hard and time-consuming to solve technical problems.

In a note, (re)energisa told Mongabay that it maintains teams available to travel to the community to maintain and restore the panels’ functioning as quickly as possible. However, the company said Energisa has been working on “innovation in service” through training locals, “considering the challenges of accessing some regions benefiting from the microgrid programs.”

NGOs help fill the gap

Solar energy recently overtook wind power to become Brazil’s second-most important energy provider after hydroelectric plants, and earlier this month, Manaus inaugurated the largest solar power plant in the northern region of the country. In recent years, installations of solar panels have expanded in communities across the Amazon via public, private and third-sector-led initiatives.

In partnership with Brazilian lithium battery company Unicoba, the Foundation for Amazon Sustainability NGO recently installed solar panels at the Santa Helena do Inglês village, some 60 kilometers (37.2 miles) from Manaus on the Negro River in Amazonas state, which Mongabay reported on last year.

WWF Brazil set up a solar panel project in the Vila Limeira region, in Lábrea, south Amazonas state, a region that consistently has high levels of deforestation.

Paulo Junqueira, a coordinator from the NGO Instituto Socioambiental, has been working with the Xingu Indigenous communities on a solar energy project that kicked off in 2018. He said communities were experiencing many benefits with solar energy, such as allowing work on apiculture at night, when it is easier to work with the bees. Solar power also eliminated the constant noise of diesel generators. He also noted that access to electricity has had a profound impact on cultural practices.

“In the old days, when someone hunted an animal, it was divided among the community. The hunter chose the best piece and the rest was distributed,” he said. “And that was a matter of generosity and sharing. Now the hunter can just freeze the meat.”

A church lit by solar lights.
Communities such as Terra Firme now rely on solar panels instead of costly diesel generators, run by expensive fuel driven by distance, as substantial markups on diesel are common outside urban areas. Photos by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Hungry in the light

Rubem Souza, a researcher at the Amazonas Federal University, told Mongabay that while the Amazon had potential for all renewable sources, many solar technologies had a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions embedded into their supply chain — from mining and purifying raw materials to assembling the different components and shipping them to the Amazon.

Instead, he argued that bioethanol from native products such as manioc posed a better alternative.

“You can create the whole supply chain locally, from planting, which helps people stay on the land, to producing the bioethanol, which you can then use for transport or to generate electric energy,” he said.

“Besides that, you can intercrop manioc with other crops such as beans, corn. … And in the manioc processing chain you have the possibility to produce animal feed, cosmetics from the leaf. There is no waste.”

He also pointed out that the expansion of energy access in itself across the Amazon did little to improve livelihoods without a coherent development plan. “People stop being hungry in the dark and start being hungry in the light,” he said.

Aerial image of Terra Firme.
According to official data, 8,828 solar kits have been installed, such as in Fátima Batista’s house, benefiting around 35,000 people. By 2030, the federal program aims to reach more than 850,000 people. Photo by Avener Prado. for Mongabay.

Dams and illegal mining

Hydropower plants in the Amazon produce 26 percent of Brazil’s energy, but little of this goes to local communities.

“The big energy projects in the Amazon were always conditioned by the demand in the whole country,” Evandro Mateus Moretto, a researcher at the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay by video call.

“Two examples are the Madeira River and the Xingu River,” Moretto said. “These big hydroelectric dams are models of centralized energy generation, which need transmission infrastructure and are designed to provide energy across the country but not so much to meet the needs of the place where they are located.”

“One of the consequences of this is that in Porto Velho, where you have the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams, and in Altamira, where you have Belo Monte, you have some of the highest energy prices in the country, which is outrageous, to say the least,” Moretto said.

Batista’s riverside home is located in the influence area of both the Jirau and Santo Antônio dams, constructed during the last Workers’ Party administrations, which critics blasted over efficiency and social impacts.

In recent years, fish supplies have become scarcer as a direct impact of the dams, and many riverine communities along the Madeira River have turned to work on illegal gold mining platforms, which now occupy the river.

A street light in Terra Firme.
Public light in places like Terra Firme are a result of several federal programs aimed at electrifying remote communities in Brazil. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Mongabay visited Terra Firme shortly after a huge police operation on the Madeira River had destroyed more than 100 mining platforms. Some in the community and other neighbors either owned, worked or were partners of such platforms. From Terra Firme, a large deposit of sand caused by illegal mining could be seen on one of the banks of the river.

Experts have noted the profound negative social impacts that the illegal mining trade has had on local communities, including Terra Firme, such as increased violence, prostitution, and drug use.

And while Batista’s grandchildren don’t have to study by candlelight, they have trouble getting to school because the community has been without school transport access for some years now, a problem that has been aggravated by the pandemic.

Access to water is also another long-term issue, and the community is still waiting for cisterns to be installed.

Back at the Terra Firme community, as nighttime falls, family members sit around the table talking about the recent election and playing music on their cell phones. They discuss the possibility of doing a barbecue the next day with meat from a tapir they hunted a few days earlier, which they stored in the freezer.

“This is a peaceful place, a good place to live, a place where I raised my nine children. I raised all of them here,” Batista said.


CORRECTION (2/6/2023): An earlier version of this article stated that (re)energisa delivers and maintains solar kits in Rondônia, but the Energisa group is responsible for it. The post has now been corrected.

UPDATE (3/22/2023): The story was updated to clarify that the numbers for the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Luz para Todos (Light for Everyone) program had been updated up to Nov. 2022.

This report is the second of a three-part series produced with support from the Serrapilheira Institute.

Banner image: Hairdressser Flávio Mateus do Santo de Sousa cutting the hair of a customer. When growing up, his mother, Fátima Batista, had to study with candles at night. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

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