Did I really publish the last post only six days ago?? It feels like weeks have gone by with the amount that has happened since then. I’ve had various people reach out to me asking how the bici-radio installation went and I apologize for the delay in posting photos. With hectic preparations for the festival and then final reflections on the first phase of my artistic residence, I’ve barely had a moment to take a deep breath. Rios de Encontro’s third Beleza Amazônica Festival involved four days of artistic presentations, discussion circles, the launch of the solar powered bici-radio and a slightly improvised bicicletada that followed a morning of rain. I’ll try my best to relay all that happened!
When Renato arrived from Belém last Friday morning, we immediately went over to Fabiano the mechanic’s house to pick up the metal structure for the bike radio. We brought it to a bike shop, where Dan’s bike was receiving some much needed refurbishing, and had everything mounted. It was quite a lot of work to get the metal structure secured tightly on the bike and it will likely have to remain there even though we originally wanted it to be removable and adaptable to other bikes. Then Renato and I embarked on what would be a long drawn out process of purchasing the rest of the materials for the workshop. These last few important steps in the bike radio installation were frustrating and threw various cultural challenges at me as a coordinator. It seemed like innumerable obstacles arose with every small step taken forward. Under pressure to prepare all the different presentations and events for the festival, our time was limited. Dan, Mano and I were constantly running in different directions around the city. And given the fact that our main form of transportation is by bicycle and one bike was under construction, I was quite literally running everywhere. Some of the challenges I ran into, cultural and logistical, were as follows:
The inverter that arrived at our house was different than the one included in Luis’s outline and the one ordered, something that Pablo recognized when we first opened the boxes and thankfully Renato was able to adapt.
The process of purchasing other needed materials such as a multitester and bolts was extremely slow because at every store we had to wait for a fiscal receipt (for final budgeting purposes with the grant), which meant that Renato and I had little time on Friday to prepare the methodology for the workshop.
Later that night two of the four young people in the solar energy workshop told me they wouldn’t be able to make it because of work and school obligations. In the end, one of them was able to adjust his schedule, but I was extremely disappointed that they didn’t advise me sooner so I could change the timing of the workshop. Attendance/participation was a challenge I dealt with throughout this process and am planning to detail further in my final report.
Upon arriving home with the newly repaired bike, I realized the tire was flat for some reason and used all my remaining energy to pedal the heavy thing all the way back to the bike store.
These unexpected delays left us with little time to spray paint the metal structure and I ended up doing a rushed and terrible job the next morning before the workshop. To my frustration, we had to install the final system when it was still a little wet.
I felt like there was insufficient publicity done about the solar energy workshop as a whole. This was largely due to the many other activities and events that were being organized throughout the weekend as part of the festival.
I don’t intend to throw a blanket of negativity over the experience or provide excuses for the aspects of the project that didn’t turn out as expected. I’m hoping to represent this experience as truthfully and transparently as it happened and illuminate the challenges and mistakes we made along the way. I’m not going to lie; it was a lot of work on my part as a coordinator. I struggled to mediate between a specialist well versed in the language of formal institutions and technical engineering language, and three young people with whom that language does not serve. I had to ensure that the workshop did not become dreadfully boring and energy-consuming for those who struggle in normal classroom settings. It was important that every minute the young people were using their hands to construct things and that the methodology used throughout the past six weeks of workshops was continued. I also had to make sure that sufficient attention was dedicated to all the young people participating, not just those with a technical background like Pablo. Having to navigate the situation in another language and keep all of these considerations in mind was not easy. Nevertheless, the final product was a great success and the process left me with some interesting reflections. The workshop was a very valuable experience for the young people. They absolutely loved the opportunity for hands-on involvement in constructing a system themselves. While the hours ticked by and I expected them to lose interest and energy, they surprised me by staying in the classroom we were using until the bike was completely finished. Later that day, everyone had the chance to pedal around and use the power of the sun to inform the community about the events that would be taking place in the plaza at night (aka blast our little solar powered amplifier at peak volume). The bike is pretty heavy with the module, battery and amplifier, but the most challenging part is gaining a solid balance. By the time Pablo was finally able to propel the bike forward and start moving I was grinning uncontrollably. I swear, I’ll never forget the image of him pedaling away from us down the streets of Cabelo Seco, the sun glinting brightly off the solar panel roof.
The third Beleza Amazônica Festival centered on the young people as art educators, researchers and coordinators of their own projects, presenting the culmination of a year of workshops and courses. On Friday night we had an open dialogue focused on “segurança ecosocial” “eco-social security” with two members of the Military Police force. This conversation opened a space where the community and the police could dialogue about how to solve the issue of violence in the region. We made the solar energy project relevant in this discussion by tying in the idea of environmental security threatened by a violent development model.
On Saturday night a variety of dance presentations were held in the small plaza in the heart of Cabelo Seco. Little girls in bright skirts and glittery make-up pranced around the stage we constructed under strings of lights. The bici-radio leaned against a wall behind the stage, welcoming curious glances and questions. The night closed with a very impressive performance by the dance company AfroMundi, which expressed the tragic consequences of a hydroelectric dam and further destruction of the Amazon. As soon as there are videos available I will share them! On Sunday morning rainy conditions almost cancelled our bicicletada. It was a bit of a blessing to wake up at 7am to the patter of rain on the ceramic roof tiles and realize I could get another two hours of desperately needed sleep, but after experiencing the last bicicletada I was also disappointed. The younger generation of Cabelo Seco was also disappointed and not as easily defeated. The whole morning they clamored at our window, hanging on the metal bars and groaning, pointing at the sky and the street to show that the rain was drying up. We finally allowed them to mobilize community and by midday we had a solid group of screaming, whistling bike riders covered in solar energy ribbons.
A rare cool breeze enters my bedroom as I look out my iron barred window at a sky filled with dark clouds. The smell of an approaching rain follows and a door slams shut across the street. Next to me on my bed sits a brand new solar module, a charge controller and an invertor, still in their packaging. To my delight, these parts arrived at our door on Monday. I ripped open the boxes as soon as they were in my hands to make sure everything was correct and in good shape. Although the module is small (measuring around 2 x 2 with a potential of 55W), its sleek design has a commanding presence when I take it out of the box. I’ve noticed that everyone who admires it is careful to use a delicate touch and not smudge the glass. Tomorrow we will receive another member of GEDAE to help with the construction of the bici-radio. Unfortunately, Luis was unable to return to help us with the installation, but his diligence and dedication to the project will not go unnoticed. In his place, he highly recommended Renato Cavalcante, a graduate student who has worked closely with the group. Renato will stay in Cabelo Seco for three days to participate in our Festival Beleza Amazônica (which began yesterday!) and on Saturday he will help coordinate a workshop for the construction of the bike-radio. The workshop is open to the public, but I anticipate it will mostly be composed of participants from the solar energy workshop.
There is someone in particular who is just as excited as I am about the solar panel’s arrival; a young person involved in the project and the solar energy workshops named Pablo. Given his experience as an electrical technician, Pablo has played an important role in helping to purchase different parts for the bici-radio and he will likely hold much of the responsibility for its maintenance in the future. He is only 15 years old, but he has been working for an electrical repair company for the past 5 years and manages all of Rios de Encontro’s illumination and electrical necessities.
Despite his silent and reserved demeanor, I could tell Pablo was itching to get his hands on the new equipment. I’ve noticed him fiddling with an electrical circuit board or taking apart the amplifier cables and examining their insides during group meetings. He always manages to find something to deconstruct and then reconstruct. When I showed him the module, the invertor and charge controller, he opened everything and started to connect all the parts. I prompted him to explain everything he was doing; so I could better understand and he could practice explaining. This experience is especially important for someone like Pablo because he could be the future of the solar energy industry in Marabá. I proposed the idea that he starts the first solar energy manufacturing or installation center in the municipality. He seemed pleased.
Earlier today Pablo and I also went out to purchase the rest of the materials needed for the installation, such as wires, electrical tape, plugs and the battery (excuse my technical language but I am not a trained engineer and this was Pablo’s moment to shine). This was a bit of a hassle in the rain with bicycles as our only means of transportation, but we were successful in finding everything on the list Renato and Luis sent to us. When we returned to the house Pablo once again took everything out and created a rough outline of how the system would look, using only Luis’s diagram as a guide. When he reached a point where he was relatively content with the parts in front of him, he stopped and looked over at me. He said something along the lines of, “I don’t know why you have someone coming from Belém to help with this installation. I could’ve done it for you.” And he was right; the bici-radio was essentially constructed on the floor in front of him.
All that was missing from his assemblage was the actual structure to be mounted on the bike. I’ve done some hardcore bonding with the solar panel over the past week, aside from the fact that it stays in my room and I sleep next to it every night. Our friend Fabiano is going to build the metal structure that will support the solar module and speaker on the bike, but he needs constant reminders that our time frame is limited, so I have taken on the task of appearing at his garage to ensure the project is moving along. We felt uncomfortable leaving the solar panel with him in his workshop because if anything serious were to happen to it, the project would be impossible. This means that I have been lugging the solar panel on the 20-minute walk to his house so he can use it, and then back to Cabelo Seco (I swear, people in this city definitely think I’m insane). Regardless, the struggle has been worth it and the structure is almost finished. Tomorrow Renato and I will go over everything we have prepared for the installation to make sure it is ready for Saturday. So many things have been happening in the past week that I haven’t had a moment to sit down and publish it all. We had our final solar energy workshop on Sunday, a last minute visit to the community from Joilson Costa, part of the group “Campanha Nacional por uma Nova Política Energética”, and launched the third Festival Beleza Amazônica last night at the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school! Better pictures are coming soon, I promise…
Over the past few weeks I have been in dialogue with Professor Luis Blasques (member of the alternative energy group GEDAE in Belém, who visited Cabelo Seco in October to launch our solar energy intervention) about our plan to construct a solar powered bike-radio. Luis drew up a design and gave us recommendations about the components we would need to purchase. The small amplifier we will use as a speaker system arrived last week and we have ordered the solar module, charge controller and inverter from a company based in São Paulo. They are estimated to arrive by the end of this week. We plan to buy the battery for the system in Marabá because it will be faster and possibly cheaper. To give you a better idea of what this will look like, below is an image of the design Luis created.
In Sunday’s solar energy workshop, we split the small group into two pairs and sent them out into the community to take pictures. Their assignment was to photograph a response to the following question: what will be preserved with solar energy? They were additionally asked to photograph potential locations to film a short movie on solar energy. This was an excellent idea on Dan’s behalf because it gave the young people the opportunity to extract a more profound and abstract understanding of the benefits of solar energy, rooted in concrete examples in Cabelo Seco. The result was extremely interesting. When each pair returned, we projected the photos on the wall and they explained their thought processes. The first pair presented a series of photographs predominantly featuring negative aspects of the community that would hypothetically disappear with the implementation of solar energy. Their first photo showed a grotesque amount of litter disintegrating on the riverbank below the boardwalk. They explained that litter would be reduced with the arrival of solar energy because people will become more environmentally responsible and conscious of their actions. I wondered whether this idea was sparked by one of the short videos we watched in last week’s workshop. The video showed the effects of population explosion in the city of Altamira as a consequence of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. There were many scenes of the city streets covered in overflowing trash bins and crumbling infrastructure. Maybe in their minds, hydroelectric dams are now associated with litter and unpleasant surroundings. The next photo that appeared on the wall was one of electrical lines running through the neighborhood. The pair made the argument that solar energy uses less electrical lines so therefore the neighborhood will be more beautiful. While this isn’t necessarily true, it is notable that they are drawing a connection between solar energy and a cleaner, less polluted world.
Among the thought-provoking photographs presented by the second pair was one taken on the boardwalk, right as the sun was beginning to set. The picture captured so many different aspects of solar energy: the plants growing on the riverbank, the reflection of the setting sun on the river, colorful shirts drying on a clothesline strung between two streetlamps, and slowly extending shadows. Intended to illustrate one location for filming our video, the photo perfectly exemplified the varied roles the sun plays in their lives. I noticed that the most significant part of this discussion was that the young people were starting to speak with a greater sense of authority about the subject of solar energy. Their facts may not be 100% accurate, but this exhibition of confidence is enough to show that the workshops are having an impact.
I know I haven’t touched much on the larger solar panel installation we envisioned completing during my stay here. The reasoning behind this is due to the constantly fluctuating circumstances regarding property ownership. I felt like it didn’t make sense to keep publishing updates considering the situation changes on a daily basis and is often prolonged by the disappearance of landlords. The whole process of officially connecting a PV system to the grid can take up to 82 days (possibly more in a region where solar generation is so scarce). We can accelerate this process by submitting a request for authorization to CELPA, Pará’s electrical power distributor, but we need to be able to define the system’s characteristics. Meaning, we need to know what type of system we want to install and where. The challenges concerning the location of the panel have made it difficult to move forward and unfortunately it’s something we have little control over. It’s a very frustrating situation for many reasons aside from the solar panel project.
That said, all hope is not lost and the solar installation will still take place, just not before my December 16th departure date. I find it hard to believe that December has already arrived, marking two and a half months of my collaboration with Rios de Encontro. So much has been accomplished in this time, yet we still have many things to do. Originally, this collaboration was intended to span a three-month time period. Given the reality that we will be unable to complete the installation in the next two weeks, Dan, Mano and I have been discussing the possibility of my return in February 2015. This would give us more time to determine what the property situation will look like over the next year.
“Em que parte do Brasil estamos?” “We are in what part of Brazil?” Dan chorused to the circle of 3rd grade students sitting in the auditorium of the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school.
“O norte!” “The north!” offered one student.
“O estado do Pará!” “The state of Pará!” screamed another.
We were in the middle of one of 24 workshops Rios de Encontro was invited to give in the elementary school, centered on theatre, dance, music and story-telling. Over the past two months, these workshops incorporated all 500 students into a process of re-integrating regional arts and popular culture into education. The process is representative of the urgent need to construct a new pedagogy within educational institutions that integrates artistic languages and is capable of responding to the contemporary challenges facing the region.
“Marabá fica na Amazônia?” “Is Marabá located in the Amazon?” Dan probed again.
“NÃO!” came the unanimous answer from the crowd, some children shaking their heads and wagging an index finger in their air. Then it was Mano’s turn to pose a question.
“Onde fica a Amazônia?” “Where is the Amazon?”
“Onde tem floresta.” “Where there is forest.”
“No outro lado do rio!” “On the other side of the river!”
The affirmation that the Amazon is a faraway place or somewhere on the other side of the river was a common theme in every class we met with. The few teachers who participated in the workshops or even sat watching (many took advantage of the opportunity to escape their unruly students and left in search of a coffee or a nap) were also complicit in this assertion. Neither their house, their neighborhood, or the city of Marabá are located in the Amazon. To see how widespread this belief was in both children and adults, and in a school for that matter, was pretty shocking. It reminded me of the way my friends and family in the United States reacted when I mentioned I would be working in the Brazilian Amazon. Even here, there is the overwhelming notion that the Amazon only exists where there is dense jungle, exotic animals and indigenous tribes. This is a serious challenge for the preservation of the Brazilian Amazon. If people living here cannot identify themselves as part of the Amazon, what reason would they have to defend it? If the Amazon is a distant place that doesn’t affect them, why should people be worried about its destruction?
Last Saturday, Rios de Encontro’s sixth bicicletada intended to cultivate and celebrate this Amazonian identity. The bicicletada was called “Eu Sou Amazônia” “I am the Amazon”.
Vibrant, exhilarating and incredibly sweaty are among some of the words I would use to describe the bike ride. We had an early start, with all the students, parents, teachers, police and other various participants meeting at the school at 7:30am. As Dan and Mano welcomed everyone over the loudspeaker, I zigzagged through the mass of bicycles, handing out strips of colored ribbon that people could use to decorate their bikes, their hair and their bodies. The day before we expended a lot of energy ripping the fabric into strips and tying them into small bunches that could be attached to handlebars. Still hoping to incorporate an element of solar energy into the bicicletada after our timeframe to record a song for the bike radio became limited, we thought of using the yellow, orange and red ribbons to create a sort of moving sculpture. Blowing in the wind, the ribbons created a fire-like effect and the entire bicicletada became a river of solar energy that surged through the streets of the city. When we cycled through neighborhood streets people came out and stood in their doorways to watch the procession. We made a pit stop for water in Santa Rosa and then biked down the boardwalk to Cabelo Seco, where the Latinhas de Quintal preformed one of their songs in the plaza. It was the biggest bicicletada Rios de Encontro has held so far. It also marked a very significant advancement in the involvement of the military police. This year, the commander himself participated and led the colorful swarm of bicycles throughout the city, followed by 12 handpicked officers in his unit on bikes and motorcycles. Their presence was a strong symbol of their support for the project and an indication of their desire to see a more sustainable future for Marabá.
I was strangely energized post bicicletada despite my sleep deprived state and role as an emergency help vehicle for all the little people struggling to untangle taut ribbons from their wheels and gears during the ride (the only downside to the river of solar energy idea). I initially attributed it to the much-needed coffee I gulped down in the morning, but Dan explained how the bicicletada has a tendency to give people a huge adrenaline rush. I realized he was right; the bicicletada was much more than a bike ride around the city. It also made me recognize that the name they have devised for the second bicicletada is just as relevant and meaningful as the first. In two weeks we will host the second bicicletada for Cabelo Seco, named “Energias de Vida” “Energies of Life”.
On Sunday afternoon we held the third solar energy workshop in the Barracão. The main objective of the workshop was to brainstorm ways to sensitize Cabelo Seco and Marabá about solar energy during next week’s bike ride and the end of the year festival.
To give you a little background, the bike ride is a highly anticipated and widely enjoyed semi-annual event coordinated by Rios de Encontro. Known as the “bicicletada”, the event usually commences in Cabelo Seco and pauses for intervals in different neighborhoods throughout the city for refueling snacks and seven-minute workshops or presentations. Since the number of participants has been growing every year, the event requires a lot of careful planning. There are municipal and state policemen involved, firemen, local businesses and members from the secretariat of the environment. The presence of the police forces is as much for safety precautions as a way to involve the entire city in a healthy, sustainable activity. This year we will have two bicicletadas, one in partnership with a local elementary school and then another longer one in December that will be more focused on Cabelo Seco and the festival. Next Saturday’s bicicletada with the school celebrates the conclusion of various workshops Dan and Mano were invited to give to students and teachers as part of the national program “Mais Cultura nas Escolas” More Culture in Schools. Since this bicicletada will incorporate a much greater percentage of little people, it will be shorter than past bike rides and concentrated in Velha Marabá. The young coordinators of Rios de Encontro will play vital roles in synchronizing the departure from the elementary school, the workshops and the snacks. From the video clips I’ve seen and the number of children who have already stopped by the window of our house to confirm its date, I can sense the significance of the bicicletada throughout the community. Below is an awesome video made by the Rabetas Videos group about last year’s bicicletada.
In addition to the bicicletada, the Beleza Amazonica Festival will provide a platform to present our conversations and work on solar energy. This year’s Festival will celebrate the culmination of the sixth year of community solidarity and the Rios de Encontro project. Each micro-project holding workshops throughout the year will showcase their work in some way over the three-day celebration. Partners of Rios de Encontro and local musicians, artists and students are also invited to participate in giving presentations or mini-workshops. We are currently in the process of designing the Festival so I won’t give any more away, but hopefully this offers a better idea of what we needed to prepare for in the workshop.
Returning to that point, the aim of Sunday’s discussion was to determine what kinds of actions can be incorporated into the bicicletada and the festival to promote dialogue about solar energy. At the beginning of the workshop, I presented some pictures about solar energy innovations taking place around the world (including the events I mentioned in my last post). The topics ranged from innovations like the Solar Impulse plane, to solar powered kiosks that charge phones in Africa, to the solar panels installed at my university, to illiterate women trained in solar power engineering at the Barefoot College in India. This quick glance into the many different advancements taking place around the world was intended to give participants a base of current, up-to-date information that they can use to advocate. With the understanding that innovations using the energy of the sun are blossoming in many different countries, the conversation transitioned into a dialogue about what is possible here. We divided the workshop up into groups to better facilitate conversation and create a space for those who don’t have the confidence to speak in front of a larger audience. Some of the adolescents are very shy and will opt to remain silent even when they have valuable comments or questions to contribute. We presented the question to the groups: Using any type of artistic resource, music, film, dance, photography, how can we pitch solar energy to the public?
Once reunited as a larger group, Dan grabbed his camera and took on the role of an interviewer, directing the camera lens at different people with animated provocations. I’ve learned from their workshops that the camera is an incredible pedagogical tool. Once the camera is turned on, people become shy, embarrassed and start to giggle, but they are willing to contribute to the creation of a film. The feedback from the circle was really good. Last week Mano came up with the idea of creating a community bike radio powered by solar energy. I know that probably sounds confusing for people who are not from here. A bike radio is basically a bike that has a speaker system mounted on its front. Similar to the way cars drive around promoting political candidates during the elections, there are also people who ride these bike radios around blasting advertisements. The bikes often have a small roof or canopy situated over the biker to protect him/her from the glaring sun. Mano proposed placing a solar panel on the roof, which would power the speaker system for the community radio project we plan on starting (we consulted Luis about this idea and he said it would definitely be possible- we are currently in the process of finding the right speakers). Having shared this proposal with the members of the workshop, many suggested that a song would be an effective way of grabbing the attention of the general public. We could borrow the tactics used by politicians and substitute the lyrics of a popular song with phrases about solar energy to create something really catchy. People will be singing about solar energy without even realizing it. The song idea has great potential given the various musical talents of the people involved in the workshop. Other ideas for the bicicletada included creating posters with face cutouts that the children could pose with or designing some sort of stencil that could be painted onto hands, faces or t-shirts. We scheduled a time to reconnect on Thursday afternoon to put our ideas into action and everyone left with plans to experiment with potential lyrics.
In an effort to provide some lighter, more optimistic reading, I’ve compiled some inspiring updates on recent solar energy developments around the world. The most noteworthy advancement with respect to our project is the Brazilian government’s move to invest around $1 billion into the solar energy industry on October 31st (they were undoubtedly under pressure to respond to the valuable debate and demands that arose from our solar energy meetings…). However aside from this news, countries around the world are exhibiting greater efforts to solarize. Every innovation put into practice, every investment or policy that is made, represents important steps forward for the clean energy sector.
To start, in March 2015, two Swiss pilots will take turns piloting a single-manned, solar powered plane around the world. The first prototype of this plane, named Solar Impulse, can fly day and night without a drop of fuel! It has more than 17,000 solar cells located on its wings and weighs about as much as a family car. Solar Impulse broke 8 world records when it became the first solar powered airplane to fly through the night, between two continents, and across the United States. Last year’s journey from San Francisco to New York sparked a global initiative to engage people to advocate for greater investment in green technology. Lessons learned from the prototype will be used in the construction of Solar Impulse 2, the plane that will fly around the world next year. Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg formed Solar Impulse in 2004 with the goal to create a revolution in people’s minds about clean technology. Their goal is to demonstrate the importance and potential of technologies that are already available to us. They assert that although clean technologies exist, they will not be fully utilized or appear on the market until government establish a legal framework. Learn more about this impressive project here.
Speaking of government initiative, Brazil’s national energy regulator (ANEEL) held its first exclusive solar power auction on October 31st, with the objective of developing the solar energy industry in Brazil. This initiative is driven by the reality that Brazil is undergoing one of its worst droughts in eight decades, severely reducing output from important hydroelectric dams. Finally, the government is making an effort to diversify its energy sources. It was clear from this extremely competitive auction that developers are more than ready to jump on this opportunity. The auction awarded contracts for the construction of 31 solar parks throughout the country. There were 400 solar projects registered in total, indicating that there exists a large number of projects with the necessary conditions to enter in future auctions. Companies were awarded 20-year contracts to sell power to ANEEL for projects that must go into operation by October 2017. In Brazil’s power auctions, the government sets a ceiling price for solar power, in this case $109/MWh, and developers bid down the rate at which they are willing to sell power. Whichever company offers the lowest price wins the 20-year contract to sell electricity. The incredible outcome of the auction was that it attracted bids among the lowest unsubsidized solar prices in the world, at $87/MWh! That the clearing price fell so low means that developers feel they can drive down the costs of their projects well below today’s levels in the next 2 ¾ years (before the Oct. 2017 deadline). It also indicates that the developers are willing to accept low returns, maybe for the status of being the first solar parks in the country. Already the costs are relatively low for some of the contracted projects because they will be constructed on wind farms, where transmission lines already exist and the land does not need to be developed.
The high price of solar panels has limited the development of this industry in Brazil and is often used as an argument against its expansion. The upfront costs of solar are higher in Brazil than any other part of the world, owing to high import taxes and regulations that require a portion of the project’s equipment to be manufactured domestically. However, this financial argument disappears with the results of the auction, given that the average price of electricity from solar is now lower than that of nuclear and fossil fuels. If the price continues to plummet as projected, it will be competitive with hydroelectricity. And this doesn’t even account a monetary value for the externalities these energy sources create. The auction is a historical milestone for Brazil, not just because it marks the entrance of solar power into Brazil’s energy sector, but because it clearly illustrates a strong desire and potential among Brazilians to move the country in a cleaner direction. Legal frameworks are the only thing missing.
Moving back to the European landscape, today Holland opened the world’s first solar-paneled road. Stretching 70 meters long (230 ft), SolaRoad is a public bike path that connects two suburbs in Amsterdam. The path is built out of massive solar panel modules embedded in concrete under a layer of tempered glass. On top of the glass is a translucent, skid resistant plastic coating, durable enough to withstand the thousands of Dutch cyclists that will utilize it each day. The panels generate about 30% less energy than solar panels found on roofs because they cannot be adjusted at an angle to the changing position of the sun. Regardless, the length of the bike path is considerably larger than any rooftop installation could withstand. Each square meter of the road generates between 50-70 kWh of energy per year. This is currently enough electricity to power two houses and will be enough to power three when the road is expanded in 2016. While solar roads are extremely costly and may seem inconvenient at the moment, developers appear confident that successive projects will be profitable within a decade.
If you have any other news regarding solar energy advancements, please feel free to share!
I step out into the cool night air to think. The full moon illuminates my path, providing light in place of the unlit streetlights that run along the portion of boardwalk entering Cabelo Seco. I’m surprised by how much light the moon provides. All of the canoes and boats sitting on the riverbank below are visible and I can trace the outline of the beach and trees on the other side of the river. As I reach the portion of the boardwalk where streetlights apparently matter, I can hear music pulsating from the Manduquinha.
The Manduquinha is the Vale-financed and refurbished bar I have referenced in previous posts. It refers to the plaza and a section of the boardwalk that surround the bar as well, since the events hosted there draw large crowds of people to the space. I’m interested in seeing what events are taking place tonight, but not because I plan on participating. Although the Mandoquinha has claimed the loyalty of a significant portion of Marabá’s population, we prefer not join in on the festivities it hosts. In 2011, Rios de Encontro’s young coordinators made the collective decision not to preform on any stage or accept any award financed by Vale. Our refusal to participate in the events they sponsor or accept their propaganda serves as a form of denunciation. This past Wednesday was Dia Nacional da Cultura (National Culture Day). To mark the holiday, Marabá’s city council, in partnership with Vale, has organized a week of “cultural” events. Beginning on Tuesday, the week is full of demonstrations of various artistic expressions, including dance, Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), theatre, arts and crafts, literature and music. There are workshops and seminars held during the day, open to the public.
Earlier this week I passed by the plaza and saw men setting up large white tents and stages in preparation for the festivities. This usually happens every weekend as part of the Secretary of Culture’s Cultura Faz Bem project. Yet this week’s setup is different because Vale’s logo appears explicitly on the tents and backdrops of the stages. In the past, Vale has maintained a silent presence, financing concerts and performances in conjunction with local politicians but not openly publicizing their contributions. This week’s infrastructure makes their involvement very visible. Even newspaper articles advertising the cultural events plainly state that the city council is working in partnership with Vale to promote a week of culture. I am interested to know how the people of Marabá interpret this relationship.
Anyway, the scene I am witnessing is quite unbelievable. I wind through small groups of people gathered on the boardwalk, drinking beers and talking. For the elaborate setup and publicity efforts, the attendance is pretty weak. I’m curious as to how much money was spent on this event. And don’t make fun of me, but I might have wondered how many solar panels could have been purchased instead. Aside from what appears to be the main stage, there are various smaller tents displaying paintings and musical instruments. One tent has a bunch of cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling, which looks creepy but piques my curiosity. Nevertheless, I don’t stray from the boardwalk and slow my pace to see if there is anyone I recognize among the groups of people. I see families, friends, lovers and groups of teenagers enjoying themselves in the midst of a serious crisis. Does anyone realize they are being bought? I walk by some of the most progressive and critical professors in UFPA. I walk by leaders of the MST. I smile and hide the judgment. How can they not recognize this contradiction?
The scene is sickening in its blatant deception. Vale’s immense economic and political power gives it the ability to manipulate local governments into disseminating its propaganda. A miniscule amount of its vast wealth can be injected into publicity and marketing as a means of gaining the consent of the population and eliminating the threat of opposition. By planning social events that please the public, Vale deals with the troublesome social and environmental responsibility it must uphold as a corporation. Not that it does this very successfully…In the 2012 World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Vale was presented with an award for being the worst corporation in the world. I turn around and walk home. What I really want to do is go back and take photos, record this moment so that in 10 years, whatever the landscape may look like, there is documentation of this exploitation. However, given our boycott of Vale’s entire development project, this action would be sensitive. I stand out and people know my association with the project. We don’t want to accuse or judge, and we don’t want to be misunderstood as doing so. The photos included in this post are ones Dan took in the morning when the stages were being assembled. As for the night scene, I save mental images in my head.
As if to make a point, the sweltering sun beat down on me as I prepared for our first solar energy workshop in the Barracão on Sunday. The workshop didn’t have a big turn out in comparison to the amount of people that signed up for the course, but it actually ended up working out well with smaller group. Our objectives for this workshop were to 1.) sensitize people about the energy potential of the sun in the Amazon, 2.) stimulate debate and collective action to inform others and advocate solar energy, and 3.) initiate conversations about how and where to install a solar energy panel in Cabelo Seco.
The main activity of the workshop was based on an idea I came up with a few weeks ago. I wanted the first workshop to incorporate an activity that was somewhat interactive. Since last week was filled with conversations and the dissemination of pamphlets and reading materials, I thought it would be useful to do something with our hands. It needed to be a simple activity able to demonstrate the power of the sun here in the Amazon. After toying with the possibility of constructing a plastic water bottle structure to heat/purify water, I landed on the idea of a solar oven. It was perfect. The solar oven incorporates all three dimensions of the Gira-Sol project: solar energy, healthy alimentation and artistic performance. Solar energy is used to cook the food inside the oven and illustrates the power of the sun in Marabá. The foods are cooked in a simple manner without oil or additives and recipe options generally revolve around dried fruits or vegetables. Please don’t be misled by the title of this post and try to cook meat in a solar oven. Finally, cooking is a form of artistic expression. Given this perfect alignment of themes, I spent last week gathering supplies so I could construct an experimental oven before the workshop. The solar oven would be simple, constructed out of cardboard boxes, aluminum foil and saran wrap. Collecting the supplies was an experience within itself. I needed two cardboard boxes per solar oven as one would be placed inside of the other. This meant that I needed to run around the city gathering cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes to find sets of two that would fit well together. I was also on a mission to find old newspaper or Styrofoam, which would be used to fill the space between the two boxes and act as insulation. Basically, I ended up rooting through piles of cardboard boxes dumped outside of stores and grocery markets. At one point I found myself competing with a man who came along to join me in his own search for sturdy boxes (just kidding, I obviously let him take the good ones).
I experimented for two days before the workshop by attempting to make manioc (a type of potato), banana and plantain chips in my oven. It took a lot of babysitting- every hour I was outside rotating the oven and moving the reflector panel to make sure I had optimal sunlight entrance into the box. The temperature inside the oven was pretty high when I stuck my hand in to check on the food. If I had another day or two I definitely could’ve opened a business. The greatest part about this experiment period was the amount of publicity it received in the community just by sitting out in the street. People were very curious as to why I was using a wooden skewer to prop open the aluminum foil covered flap of a cardboard box. When I taped a sign reading “Energia Solar” onto the front of the box, they were even more inquisitive. Everyone would just stand at a distance with an expression on their faces similar to that of the people who watched me dig through garbage piles. So I invited them over to take a look inside and explained my intentions.
In the workshop everyone divided into groups to construct the boxes, which they brought home to experiment with throughout the week. Given my experience with the community during my own experimentation period, this activity promotes a kind of advocacy. Everyone who brings home a solar oven will, at some point, have to inform their family, friends or strangers about this way of utilizing solar energy. In addition to the box constructions, we presented information about solar energy developments that are taking place on a local/national and international level. I think the idea of incorporating current events surrounding solar energy is an essential element to the workshops. It will give people the ability to localize solar energy on a grander scale and offer them significant information they can pass on to others. At the end of the workshop, we opened the discussion to a period of reflection and assigned a question for each group to research for the following meeting. I was pleased with how this first workshop went. It was a lot of work to organize the activity but a valuable experience- for me and those who attended the workshop. Now I’m off to see if people have actually been experimenting over the last few days…
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.
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!