Bringing off-grid power to the Brazilian Amazon

Bringing off-grid power to the Brazilian Amazon

Communities in Brazil’s Amazon basin are set to experience the benefits of renewable energy for the first time thanks to a pioneering project led by Coventry University

Brazil is a country with a pivotal role to play in addressing the climate change crisis. As one of the world’s foremost CO2 emitters and with around 60 per cent of its land area covered by a large proportion of the planet’s most important rainforest – the Amazon – the biggest of South America’s nations is in a position to substantially influence the global greenhouse gas cycle.

When it comes to renewable energy, too, the country has significant potential – arguably yet to be fulfilled. In 2014, less than 10 per cent of Brazil’s total energy supply was generated from solar, wind and biomass, so as part of its commitment to the Paris climate accord the government has set a target for 23 per cent of its energy to be from renewable sources by 2030.

However, poverty and infrastructure challenges in rural communities in the vast Brazilian Amazon basin mean that taking on those targets is as much an obstacle as it is an opportunity for the country and its people.

That is why Coventry University is leading a British Council-backed technology initiative that could help Brazil’s poorer communities contribute towards its energy goals.

Financed through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) Newton Fund – which was established to direct UK government aid towards science and innovation initiatives in developing nations – the new two-year STAR Energy project will see experts in the university’s Centre for Flow Measurement and Fluid Mechanics (CFMFM) work with partners in Brazil to design and implement an affordable renewable energy microgrid that could be adopted by poorer communities.

The Coventry team’s first challenge will be to understand what the energy requirements are for communities that have never experienced renewables before.

“There is absolutely no renewable energy usage in large parts of the Amazon basin in Brazil,” says project lead Professor Elena Gaura, “so for the communities we’re supporting we’ll be working from the ground up to help them get to grips with how they actually use the little energy they currently have.

“An off-grid system like the one we’re proposing, which would likely be solar generating, could transform communities’ lives and livelihoods by helping them generate and use energy sustainably.

“For example, they might be able to store up energy for the first time and deploy it in more efficient ways than they’re currently capable of doing. It could be simple things that in other parts of the world are taken for granted, like being able to light pathways at night to improve safety, or power a computer or fridge more regularly to be able to sustain a small business.”

Professor Gaura’s and CFMFM colleagues’ expertise in wireless sensor networking is what could open the door to these possibilities. The centre – whose previous work includes fitting out bomb disposal suits with instrumentation to help understand and combat wearers’ heat stress, and networking houses with sensors to learn more about and advise occupants on their energy behaviours – has already trialled a microgrid system in a pilot project in the Philippines, and is now applying its know-how to designing a bespoke grid for the Brazilian communities.

The potential economic and enterprise benefits of implementing a microgrid extend beyond helping these communities alone. A significant part of the initiative – and a major consideration for the Coventry researchers designing the microgrid – is to make the systems simple and scalable in order to pique the interest of Brazil’s social enterprise community, and to kick-start a small scale renewable energy economy which could drive the development of the concept across the entire country

Conversations are underway with stakeholders in the country, with the help of the initiative’s Brazilian partners, to propose financial models which could support rural energy entrepreneurs to get involved in marketing, installing and servicing the systems.

In the meantime, the focus of CFMFM remains on working with selected communities to get the microgrids up and running, and to inspire the locals to make the most of them

“We have an amazing opportunity to use technology to improve the quality of life for these people,” says Professor Gaura. “We can link families together and enhance community facilities, and all the while we can monitor usage live and provide feedback and advice.

“In five to 15 years’ time we hope this project will have made a real difference, and will have made a significant contribution towards helping Brazil achieve its climate change targets.”

For more information on Coventry University’s research, visit www.coventry.ac.uk/research.