Planting Sunflower Seeds

What size is a solar panel and how much energy can it provide?

Would it be possible to build one solar panel that could support the entire community?

What are the maintenance costs for a solar panel?

Where was the first place you installed a solar panel?

Are there any politicians in favor of solar energy?

Is your group in favor or against the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Marabá?

These inquiries, among many others, were pitched at Luis earlier this week during the solar energy meetings we hosted in Cabelo Seco. Starting with the community meeting on Monday night, I was very impressed by the amount of people that showed up and the dialogue that ensued. We had university professors and students, MST leaders, individuals from the municipal education department, radio station employees, local musicians and even the mayor’s mother in attendance! Several people from the community were present at multiple meetings. If time was not a restraint, I think the conversations could have certainly continued longer. Our publicizing efforts definitely paid off in terms of attendance. The morning of the community meeting Mano and I went door to door handing out paper invitations throughout Cabelo Seco. I watched people’s expressions as Mano explained that the meeting would discuss solar energy and its potential here in Marabá. What are you thinking? I wondered, wishing I could read their minds as we lingered in doorways. Do they know what solar energy is? Are they curious?

It appeared there was much more curiosity than I expected. We started the meetings by projecting a short movie clip I produced onto the white wall of the Barracão (the cultural center located down the street). Using some footage from my travels throughout the Amazon River Basin last year, the movie calls into question the idea of large hydroelectric dams as a form of sustainable energy. It urges debate over fundamental questions about energy production in Brazil: energy for what, for whom and how? Transitioning into photos I took during my visit to GEDAE’s office in Belém, the movie proposes solar energy as an alternative pathway. We showed it at the beginning of the meetings as a way sparking thoughts and planting a few questions in people’s heads. The only downside was that people came and left the meeting in waves, so showing the movie at the start meant that latecomers missed it. With a little provocation from Dan, the floodgates opened and I was ecstatic to hear the questions that emerged. One boy fired off five consecutive questions and had more in store for the next meeting!! (I strongly encouraged him to sign up for the workshop) It was really great to have Professor Blasques there to offer direct and truthful information to a community that is generally used to receiving the opposite. In the young people meeting, these discussions shed light on the fact that there is no conversation about energy alternatives in institutional structures like schools. At one point in the meeting Dan asked the group whether these topics were ever discussed in the classroom. Everyone said no. “Are people shutting their eyes or are their eyes being shut for them?” he probed. The first answer was that people’s eyes are being shut for them. Then everyone determined it was a little bit of both.

Here I am presenting a fun solar energy quiz I designed for the young people meeting.

The question about costs was one that came up frequently. A man in the municipal meeting asked about the cost of a system for a residence, adding that his greatest worry was that the technology was inaccessible for the poor. He had a valid concern, and later that night Luis admitted that questions about costs are always complex ones. On one end, you don’t want to tell people there are extremely high costs associated with solar energy because it dissuades them from imagining solar as a viable alternative. On the other, you don’t want to give people false hope by stating a price that is unrealistically low, he explained. The reality is that the costs vary depending on the electricity consumption rates of the household.

There were around 60 people in total that participated in the meetings we held. This represents a chunk of individuals who, in Dan’s words, are not content with accepting the future as a fact. The dialogue circles offered the opportunity for people to speak about alternatives and a different reality. We are starting to create a dialogue about solar energy in Marabá that should have been initiated years ago in Brazil. I got the impression that people were not just content with creating a greater consciousness about solar energy; they wanted mobilization. We have some deep conversations ahead of us about the next steps to take. Throughout these past few weeks I’ve realized that Rios de Encontro is in many ways a voice for the people of Marabá. Being the only project in the region that refuses to accept funding from any multinational, it stands as the sole force that seriously questions Marabá’s future. The project has secured a section in two local newspapers (one owned by Vale, the other by the mayor) and we are told there are people who buy them just to read about our events. When Luis was here, Dan organized interviews with him on radio and tv stations. The fact that the project is so widely supported by people in Marabá suggests that it is a pathway for individuals to express their fears, frustrations and dissatisfaction when they are unable to declare opposition themselves.

In terms of the actual installation of solar panels in Cabelo Seco, Luis’s visit made it clear that we have some considerable challenges to think about. I anticipated the need to know exactly where the panels would be installed early on in the project, but there were many uncertain circumstances. For example, Dan and Mano were denied the possibility to purchase the house they have been renting for the past several years. The other option was to install the panel on the roof of the Barracão but again, they don’t own the property. The owner donated the space to the community and it has been utilized for dance classes, workshops and meetings. Additionally, Luis pointed out that the Barracão uses such a small amount of electricity at the moment that a solar panel would end up sending a majority of the electricity it generates back into the electrical grid. We would be generating electricity from a renewable resource, but sending it all back into a centralized, overpriced provider, who would then tax the consumers using it. In this case, one option would be to increase the energy consumption of the building by installing an air conditioning system or more lighting. Another option, we believed, would be to distribute the energy provided by that panel to multiple residences, to increase the consumption. However, Luis clarified that one system cannot be utilized in more than one house because we are not certified as an electricity distributor. To use the electricity generated from a solar panel, each house has to have its own meter, which calculates how much electricity is being generated from the panel and how much is being consumed by the household. A final possibility we considered was whether the installation could happen on the elementary school building in Cabelo Seco, but we were advised against installing on a public building. An installation on a public building would require collaboration with the municipal government and afford them a high degree of control over the project. Given these obstacles and restrictions, the practical aspect of this project will require much attention over the next few weeks. While I feel slightly pessimistic about the installation, the progress we made with the solar energy meetings is a great motivation. The day after the municipal meeting, Dan said he had strangers come up to him in the street and congratulate him on its success. This means we need a big conversation about the next steps of mobilization!


Municipal meeting (Professor Luis Blasques is on the right in green)


Zequinha closing the meeting with a song


Gira-Sol Week!


This powerful poster is being hung around the city, informing people about this week’s events

Today marks the start of a week dedicated to acknowledging, dialoguing and initiating debate about the energies of life, particularly solar energy. We are in full production mode! To promote deeper thinking about solar energy and its potential here in Marabá, we will be hanging posters throughout the city, gathering people together in circles of dialogue, and incorporating elements of solar energy into each micro-project. The Gira-Sol workshops focused on solar energy will begin shortly. We have been extremely busy. Last week was packed with meetings for each micro-project along with outreach efforts to spread the word about our events. I never fail to be extremely impressed with the amount of dedication and careful thought Mano and Dan put into each decision they make. They give 110% to the project.

Tomorrow we hit the ground running with the arrival of Dr. Luis Blasques, one of the coordinators of GEDAE, who was kind enough to give me a tour of a solar installation in Belém. Luis’s two-day visit will be fundamental to the next steps in the Gira-Sol solar energy department. Upon his arrival, we will show him around the community and introduce him to the Rios de Encontro project. He will assess the potential installation locations and together we can make decisions on the type and size of the panel, where the materials will be purchased, and who will complete the construction. Luis’s visit will facilitate public discussions about the possibility of alternative energy in Marabá, a conversation that is largely absent at the moment. We have arranged three different opportunities for the residents of Marabá to question and better understand the potential of solar energy in this region. Tomorrow night is the first of three open dialogues about solar energy. This first meeting will be held specifically for the community of Cabelo Seco. On Tuesday morning we will have another meeting for the young people of the community, with games and short films to provoke questions about solar energy and how it’s created. The third meeting will take place Tuesday evening and is open anyone interested: individuals, organizations, social movements, small businesses, professors or technicians. I’m hoping that this meeting will attract and bring together individuals who are interested in learning about alternatives and carving out a different path for Brazil’s future. Tomorrow Brazil will have a new president, and neither one of the candidates running for this position has a notable strategy for the environment.

The currently overgrown yard of the cultural center (referred to as the "Barracão")

The currently overgrown yard of the cultural center (referred to as the “Barracão”)

On Thursday we will begin breaking new ground (literally) on the creation of a community garden in the overgrown yard of the cultural center. This garden is part of the healthy alimentation aspect of Gira-Sol and will be grown in partnership with a small elementary school in Cabelo Seco, with the help of agronomy professors and their undergraduate students. Thursday marks our third meeting and we plan to bring together materials for the garden and finalize the area where it will be located. The garden is the first micro-project that has two adult coordinators, both mothers of young people involved in Rios de Encontro. They will pioneer the medicinal herb section of the garden. In terms of permeating other micro-projects, solar energy has been making its presence known in the community library workshops. This past week, the children were encouraged to draw pictures about the sun and we plan to show them animated video clips concerning energy and electricity. Movies that touch on environmental themes are also being selected for Cine Coruja, a micro-project that coordinates outdoor movie showings in the plaza on Friday and Saturday nights. In the next few English classes, we are hoping to incorporate elements of renewable energy into the activities and vocabulary. This will be especially significant for the young people representing Amazonia in the U.S. next year.

Welcome to a week of Gira-Sol and solar energy!


Lights, camera, action

Rabetas Videos recebem maquinas recicladas da Jessica Ertel do EUA

Experimenting with used cameras and camcorders brought from the U.S. in great condition! From left: Brian (15), me, Igor (18), Brandon (17), Manoela and Evany (15)

This post is long overdue, but I want to say a huge thank you to all of the people back home who donated used cameras, camcorders and other electronic equipment to the project. In particular, thank you so much to Ruth and Tom Fitzpatrick, Amy and Eric Russack, Mark and Kirsten Sweeny, and my own family!

The devices were very well received by the members of the Rabeta Videos group, a micro-project that focuses on audio and visual recording. The Rabeta* project is composed of five young men between the ages of 14-19 years old, those most susceptible to falling into the illegal economy or being assassinated. Recently, the Rabetas received a request for their first semi-professional project. A young woman named Elenice requested documentation of her dance courses to use in the final steps of earning her bachelor’s degree in physical education. For the past few weeks the Rabetas have been attending her Saturday morning dance classes and carefully filming the hour and a half long sessions, making sure to capture the action from all angles. After recording, they will edit the segments and create a short video that Elenice can use. The cameras have been of great use in this project and will definitely play a key role in the potential of their future productions.

*Rabeta in Portuguese refers to a type of boat with an outboard motor. These narrow wooden boats are quite popular here in Marabá.

Igor, Bruno e Brando experimentam com maquinas recicladas do EUA

Igor Furtado e Bruno Alves de Rabetas Videos experimentam com maquinas recicladas do EUA


An article was also published in the local newspaper about the donations

But why solar?

The last post I published was written in a rush because I was trying to take advantage of the strong internet connection in Belém before my flight back to Marabá. Reading it over now, I realize I didn’t give enough attention to explaining why exactly we want to install solar panels in Cabelo Seco. As you probably can tell, I am a strong advocate of the expansion of renewable energy. Brazil is actually doing very well on the international front, with around half of their energy consumption derived from renewable resources. Unfortunately, 80% of the renewable energy generation is coming from socially and environmentally damaging hydroelectric dams. This is a shame considering there are perfect environmental conditions for a thriving solar energy industry. In Marabá in particular, the sun shines radiantly from 10am to 5pm. When I responded to the question of “why?” with “why not?” in my last post, I made it seem like installing a solar panel was a simple question of yes or no. In reality, the reason why solar energy has not blossomed across Brazil is a lack of political will. The incentives and subsidies that do exist are not enough to encourage people to invest in the high initial cost of solar installations. For example, during my meetings with GEDAE earlier this week I learned to my dismay that there is no renewable energy credit system here. I was eager to see how this aspect of our project would develop having worked for an environmental brokerage firm last year. Renewable energy credits (RECs) represent the environmental benefits resulting from the generation of electricity from a renewable resource. In the U.S., a renewable-based generator produces two products: the physical electricity and RECs, which represent the fact that the electricity came from a renewable resource. The REC can be packaged and sold separately from the electricity by the owner of the generator. I’m getting a little off topic here… The point is, the absence of this market in Brazil implies that there could be less incentive for businesses or individuals to invest in solar energy. So on one end, I’m hoping that this solar energy project will bring an increased awareness about the presence and potential of the sun.

There is also a more profound logic behind our decision to implement a project about solar energy. As mentioned above, hydroelectricity currently composes around 80% of Brazil’s renewable energy sector. There has been ample documentation on the dangerous impacts that hydroelectric dam construction can have on natural habitats, terrestrial and marine wildlife, water quality, air quality and indigenous populations. Yet the promise of economic profit largely pushes aside the careful consideration these factors deserve. Among the hundreds of large hydropower projects planned for the Amazon River Basin exists a plan for one right here in Marabá. With a 2,160 MW capacity, the project should begin construction in the beginning of 2015 on the Tocantins River. The dam is projected to impact 9-12 different municipalities in the region (the numbers vary by source) in three different states: Pará, Tocantins and Maranhão. Economic viability reports have been completed and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is in progress. The regions that will be affected by inundation are apparently full of Brazil nut trees, different varieties of wood, and valuable wildlife that sustains the livelihoods of indigenous people. Crucially, the dam will affect the indigenous territory of Mãe Maria, already known as the most impacted indigenous land in Brazil due to the amount of industrial projects cutting through the region. Indigenous populations are speaking out against the construction and have demanded the right to determine the anthropologist and technical team that will conduct the EIA. They refuse to accept that the company constructing the dam will also carry out the assessment on its potentially harmful impacts. However, there are also many residents in Marabá and the surrounding areas celebrating the possibility of this new development. Maybe they are unaware of the fact that the generated electricity will primarily supply steel enterprises striving to amplify their iron and copper mining projects. Ironically, a relatively cleaner electricity will be used to intensify dirty projects.

In the words of Marabá’s mayor, one local newspaper writes,

“…a nova barragem não pode cometer os mesmos erros que foram cometidos quando da construção da Hidrelétrica de Tucuruí, mas entende que é importante a geração de energia hidrelétrica porque e a fonte mais limpa que existe”

“… the new dam cannot commit the same errors that were committed when the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam was constructed, and he understands that the generation of hydroelectric energy is important because it is the cleanest source that exists” (Filho 2013).

I beg to differ. With minimal environmental impact, the ability to function in complete silence, no moving parts, and relatively low maintenance (almost none for systems connected to the grid), solar energy represents an even more sustainable alternative to large hydroelectric dams. It’s not that the construction of hydroelectric dams is inherently disastrous, but rather, the model that accompanies their construction. The solar panel project is a response to this violence. It suggests that Brazil can take another pathway toward sustainability that will genuinely result in sustainable communities, as opposed to displaced ones. Moreover, this project places electricity generation in hands of the people. It becomes accessible. Gira-Sol is planting the seed for a deeper conversation, or debate, about a different reality.

This meeting of 25 women who will be threatened by Marabá's hydroelectric dam took place in June. Source:

This meeting of 25 women who will be threatened by Marabá’s hydroelectric dam took place in June. Source:

If you are interested in learning more about the hydroelectric dam projects around the world, I would seriously recommend visiting my good friend Gus Greenstein’s blog, River Solitaire. Gus was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship this year and will be traveling throughout India, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, studying the social impacts associated with large hydroelectric dam projects.

Chagas Filho. December 29th, 2012. “Construção da hidrélectrica de Marabá vai começar em 2014”. Diário do Pará. Retrieved from:

Chagas Filho. July 25th, 2013. “Hidrélectrica de Marabá: Matéria especial desvela impactos”. Opinão. Retrieved from:

GEDAE Meeting in Belém

I spent this past week in the city of Belém, the capital of the state of Pará. The main purpose of my trip here was to meet with a team of electrical engineers who work at UFPA, the Federal University of Pará. GEDAE (Grupo de Estudos e Desenvolvimento de Alternativas Energéticas Group of the Study and Development of Alternative Energies) is a team consisting of university professors, researchers, outside consultants, technicians, undergraduate and graduate students, who work on the development of renewable energy technologies. Upon arriving at their building on the UFPA campus yesterday, I was excited to learn more about their projects given that the front lawn was covered with an array of different solar panels. Manoela accompanied me for this first meeting and overall, it left me feeling optimistic about our project. We met with three members of GEDAE, João Tavares Pinho, Marcos André Barros Galhardo and Edinaldo José da Silva Pereira (Sounds more like six people, right?). The conversation gave Manoela and I the opportunity to delve deeper into the specifics of the Gira-sol project. Given the fact that I am not an electrical engineer and have been attempting to teach myself the technical aspects of solar energy through a 500-page manual in Portuguese, I wanted to address some important concerns. Should we install a system connected to the grid or an independent system with a battery? What is the difference in cost? Does Brazil have a permitting process for solar projects of a certain size? Is it possible to have a system installed where more than one residence can reap the benefits of clean energy? And most importantly: are there any other nearby solar projects that we could visit? In subsequent meetings throughout the week I was able to get most of my questions answered, but in this first encounter my lack of Portuguese was a bit of a frustration.

The members of GEDAE understandably had many questions about where the panels would be located, but they were also interested in knowing why we wanted to install them. I actually received this question numerous times when describing the project to other friends here in Belém. I can see why, for technical reasons, GEDAE would want to understand our objective or intentions- so they can better evaluate what type of project is reasonable. But I was a bit surprised at how many people questioned why we were trying to install solar panels in this community…Why not? The movement toward solar energy is weak in Brazil, let’s change that! The first meeting ended with plans for some members of the team to visit Marabá and carry out a site assessment. We also arranged a second meeting later that week, where I would get an inside look into some of GEDAE’s current and completed solar projects.

Yesterday I met up with Dr. Luis Blasques, who showed me some solar panels installed on the roof of an office building for an industrial social service company. It’s difficult to tell how large the panels are from the picture below, but there were about five other panels of the same size on this roof. Despite their size, they only contribute 10-15% of the electricity use in the entire building! At first I was surprised and a bit disappointed, but this is understandable if you think about how many appliances are running at the same time in building (air conditioning, lighting, computers, etc). Aside from the panels themselves, Luis showed me the inverter and consumer units inside the building. He offered some helpful advice and important considerations we should take into account when deciding what type of system we would like to install.


Visit to the Sesi office building in Belém, where they have a solar panel installation on their roof

Next I headed back to the GEDAE building to meet with Pedro Henrique Alves Veríssimo, a chemical engineering student working with the group. He gave me a tour of the different solar projects GEDAE is developing on site. For example, the first picture below shows a series of different solar panels. This project was evaluating the efficiency of monocristalline, polycristalline and amorphous panels and the different manufacturers of these panels. Later in the tour I even had the opportunity to visit a solar powered boat! The boat will be used to transport children living in isolated communities to their school. Unfortunately, it is currently out of commission after suffering some damages on the trip back from an exhibition in Rio de Janiero. I am very thankful to all of the members of GEDAE for taking the time to show me their projects and I look forward to meeting them again at the end of October in Marabá.


Experiment measuring the efficiency of different solar panels and brands


School bus-boat powered by solar energy! (Solar panels make up the roof of the boat)

Other solar panel projects of different size and material

Other solar panel projects of different size and material