During the day, the lighting in Morro da Babilônia, a slum in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro city, came from the sun. At night, it came from the moon. When Ronaldo Batista’s mother arrived there, that was how the place was lit.
Since then, the population has grown, but precarious conditions remain. Constant lighting at home and even paying the energy bill is still a privilege in most Brazilian slums, commonly known in the country as “favelas”.
Now, sixty-seven years after arriving in the favela, Ronaldo and other neighbors are starting a movement whose dream is to change this story: setting up the first solar energy cooperative in a favela in Brazil.
34 families from Babilônia and the neighboring periphery, Chapéu Mangueira, formed the Percília e Lúcio solar cooperative. After six months of preparations, the cooperative started operations in September 2021.
Around 3,900 residents live in these two territories, near rich communities such as Botafogo, Urca, Leme, and Copacabana neighborhoods, in the city’s Southern Area. Right beside them, some of the most expensive square meters in the country (of up to USD 333,000 for a flat), enjoy stable electricity and water. But in the “favelas” things are different.
When Ronaldo arrived in Babilônia, there were no public services. Instead, the community had to push for water and electricity to arrive. Some residents of the favela even had to cut through the forest undergrowth 60 years ago and open up streets themselves. They now say the solar energy cooperative is also opening up a path to sustainable energy in Brazilian favelas.
“I like to be very correct, pay my bills on time, but (paying for) energy was becoming more and more impossible,” Ronaldo says of his reasons for joining the solar energy cooperative initiative.
Shared economy models such as solar cooperatives are very recent in the country, says Andrigo Antoniolli, a researcher in distributed energy generation from the Strategic Research Group in Solar Energy of the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC).
As this business model became more popular, some barriers emerged, Antoniolli added. For example, potential users in poor neighborhoods still don’t understand the technology very well. In Brazil, this kind of technology is more common in rich neighborhoods or big companies, the researcher said.
Cooperatives like Percília e Lúcio usually have training programs, which can expand renewables to other favelas. But a large-scale expansion of solar will be difficult, experts say, as companies have to overcome several barriers such as Brazilian bureaucracy and lack of investments.
For local residents, the cooperative has helped to strengthen joint working between residents, reduce energy bills and expand the debate on renewable energy for low-income people. It has also been a source of income, as residents are trained to install solar panels.
Solar energy, according to specialists, can contribute to clean Brazil’s dirty energy matrix. Not only is this a cleaner energy source, but it has also become a viable alternative for marginalized communities, who face a historical lag in services.
Power out in Babilônia
The first houses on Morro da Babilônia appeared in Brazil’s colonial period, in the mid-16th century. But it was not until the 1920s that favelas gained ground in Rio de Janeiro, with around 60 residences at the time. Only in the 1980s did the state begin to guarantee energy, among other basic services, to the city’s favelas, including Babilônia.
Even so, the most common way to obtain energy was setting up a clandestine connection to the official grid and avoiding paying bills. In the early 2010s, mobilized by the 2014 Football World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, official bodies sought to regularize the energy supply in Babilônia, says actor and film director Stefano Motta, 45, one of the leaders of the solar energy cooperative.
“They started with low electricity bills, to get acceptance and get people to sign up and pay. But as time went on, two years later, the costs became absurdly high. Some residents passed from paying R$600 (USD 116) to R$1,000 (USD 194) a month. Having the service became a luxury”, he says.
Power outages were frequent, and they often damaged the locals’ electronic devices such as TVs and fans, said social worker Márcia Campos. “They say it’s a place of difficult access, an area of risk,” she laments.
Solar energy arrives
In 2020, without even having enough money to pay an electric bill, the residents of Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia favelas launched a collective funding campaign and raised R$90,000 (US$19,000) to set up a solar energy plant in the community.
The plant is composed of 58 solar panels, which were placed on the 177 square meter roof of the Residents Association of Babilônia. The solar roof has the capacity to generate 35,000 KWh per year, about enough electricity to light 35 houses. This energy is injected into the electric grid and converted into energy credits.
In practice, the company that operates the electricity grid in Rio de Janeiro, Light S/A, converts these credits into discounts in the energy bill of residences and businesses associated with the cooperative.
This method generates a monthly saving of up to R$ 80 (US$) per person. This amount represents more than 10% of the average income of each resident. Márcia and some of her neighbors didn’t join the cooperative looking at its environmental footprint, but simply because it was cheaper.
The residents pay a monthly subsidy to the cooperative to cover the running and installation costs of the plant, but they still manage to cut their energy bills by around half. Ronaldo, who lives in a house with only his wife, saw his bill drop from R$300 to R$150.
“It’s a little bit, but it’s enough for the poor. The surplus is enough to buy rice and beans. It gives an extra helping hand inside my house”, he says.
Although solar barely represents 2.6% of the Brazilian electricity mix, it has been growing in recent years. Between 2021 and 2022, the entity estimates that solar consumption will double. While in March 2021, there were 511 thousand establishments, considering companies and houses, in March of this year it was 1,1 million.
Even if there is growth, installing a photovoltaic solar energy plant is still expensive for slum residents, says Eduardo Ávila, executive director of Revolusolar —a solar NGO working in the Babilônia favela.
“Today it is the low-income population in Brazil that suffers most from the impacts of climate change. And today it is this population that still can’t access the benefits of the green, low-carbon economy. There are several benefits and opportunities that arise from this transition, but today they are still for the elites,” says Avila.
Expansion of solar energy won’t be easy
Brazilian regulation requires a permit for communities to share small-scale energy generation. Essentially, people need two or more consumers, a legal cooperative and that the place where the pain will be installed will be different from the place where the energy will be consumed.
“This goes beyond the standard solar energy model, which is to have a panel on each roof, and allows the installation of a larger plant,” explains Eduardo. Instead, the idea is for communities to join forces and set up a larger plant.
When the cooperative project was launched, about 100 families wanted to be cooperative members. But to join the effort, they needed to be registered (and debt-free) with the official distributor, as well as consuming a minimum of electricity. In the favela, where electricity is mostly clandestine and money is scarce, this was a natural barrier.
Because of the restrictions to its formalization, the cooperative is not even registered under the community’s name, but rather under Revolusolar’s name, in spite of operating as a completely separate entity.
The organization’s long-term goal is to take a similar model to other favelas and gain full ownership of the cooperative. However, there are several challenges on this path, including bureaucratic regulations and difficulties to manage and finance this model.
“Nowadays the value of a small photovoltaic system is much more accessible financially. However, for a low-income community, investments are very limited. The challenges would be the lack of dissemination of the technology among the communities and partnerships with companies specialized installers of the sector”, said researcher Antoniolli, from the UFSC.
Clandestine connections are also a problem. To be able to connect a photovoltaic generator to the electric grid, the system must be linked to a formal consumer unit and be approved at the local concessionary, the scientist added.
According to him, community workshops and applying energy generation in community centers, as has been happening in Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira, is a possible path.
In January 2022, Brazil instituted a new law that, in theory, will make it easier for other solar cooperatives to emerge. But in Eduardo Ávila’s view there is still a long way to go.
“There is no public policy to encourage this type of action. The law obliges distributors to invest in low-income communities, but it has just been sanctioned and has not yet been put into practice,” he says.
“A place of resistance”
Stefano Motta dreamed of the cooperative since he arrived in Babilônia in 2013. He recognises there are challenges ahead, but he says they’re in the same proportion as the possible opportunities.
“We know that in our country there is no lack of sunshine and that there are several people without their basic needs met. People who come to me not knowing whether to buy food or pay an electricity bill. At the same time, there is the environmental dimension, which makes us proud to run the cooperative,” he says.
According to him, the Light distribution company has tried to slow down the expansion of the cooperative model, by removing social discounts to residents who joined the solar initiative and changing their ownership address so they can’t access credits.
Climate Tracker contacted Light for comment on April 25th but did not get a response from the concessionaire until the publishing date.
In spite of this, Stefano remains committed to his goal: gaining full ownership of the cooperative by the end of 2022 and expanding into new favelas.
“The favela in Brazil is a space of historical resistance. Such an initiative arising here has a symbolic value. It is putting our legacy alive. We want to show residents from other favelas that we can”, Stefano concludes.