Lighting Up the Amazon with Cutting Edge Solar Technology

The Problem

One-quarter of the world lives without electricity. At the same time, much solar technology comes with limitations. Glass solarpanels are breakable, costly to produce and transport. It takes over two years of use to recover the embodied energy/carbon emissions in these panels - a time lag the Earth cannot afford. Portable Light Project rethinks the material, form and delivery of clean energy and light. The organization’s low carbon solar textile kits are based on principles of simplicity, adaptability and mobile ‘on demand’ energy and light. In the under-served and isolated caboclo river communities locatedalong the Amazon’s Tapajós and Arapiuns Extractive Reserve- an ecologically sensitive area in the state of Para, Brazil - over 300 families live without access to electricity. The region has inherited the ‘hard’ centralized infrastructures of kerosene lamps and fixed diesel generators that are damaging to human health and the river environment. The lack of connectivity also has an impact on the capacity for local land planning and governance, as well as the development of sustainable forest enterprises.

The Idea

Portable Light Project provides adaptable solar textile kits that enable the world’s poorest people to sew and weave bags, clothing and blankets that harvest energy. The organization strengthens local craft cultures to create diverse, energy producing communities with access to mobile networks that can transform global health care, education and businesses. In partnership with the EDP Instituto of Brasil, the Inter-AmericanDevelopment Bank, Brazillian Ashoka Partners Fabio Rosa/ IDEAAS and NGO Projecto Saúde e Alegria, Luz Portatil Brasil is a major new initiative to bring mobile renewable light and clean energy to the caboclo communities.

The Luz Portatil Brasil portable solar kits, with a flexible solar panel, rechargeable battery case, LED light, and USB port introduce for the first time a mobile and renewable ‘soft’ energy infrastructure. Luz Portatil Brasil solar textiles unfold from a very compact energy harvesting footprint, which can be attached to a carry bag, boat or backpack, to a fully three dimensional reflective lantern that can be shaped to accommodate ambient room illumination and task lighting. Phase 1 of the project will enable the establishment of a new mobile renewable solar energy platform to provide 300 river citizens and their families with the capacity to access energy to charge cell phones and access renewable light anywhere on the river. Phase 2 will expand the initiative, engaging the combined partners’ experience and knowledge of the area to create a self-sustaining mobile renewable energy model for significant scale up in the region.

Potential Impact

The confluence of mobile energy, integrated into daily life, and wireless connectivity through the ability to charge and use cellphones, has the potential to significantly expand human capacity and local governance in Amazon river communities. Wireless 3G spillover service is present in many areas of the Amazon, and Luz Portatil Brasil partner Projecto Saude y Alegria is establishing a network of satellite based solar telecenters for Internet access in areas without coverage. Much more than a ‘phone’, access to mobile cellphone technology and the Internetis enabling river communities to map their lands through cellphone enabled kite mapping; grow sustainable forest enterprisessuch as bee keeping, fishing, organic farming and weaving, and represent with geo-tagged cell phone photos the rich bio-diversity of the Tapajos Extractive Reserve - monitoring these natural resources for themselves, and the larger global community. The Inter-American Development Bank - a funding partner - has committed to measure the social impact of the project prior to its start and after a year’s time.

Social Value

Portable Light Project helps people build human capacity by integrating clean energy, renewable lighting and cell phone charging with the vast, globally diverse knowledge base of textileproduction. The organization provides rugged, 12 ounce solar textile kits and training to communities, engaging the community’s rich knowledge of textile skills, and familiarity with textiles as a part of everyday life. This culturally integrated approach facilitates technology adoption, ownership and stewardship among vulnerable women and families and is fundamentally distinct from smokestack mass-production, which homogenizes cultures with a singular product ‘form’.

Luz Portatil Brasil’s innovative production structure makes it one of the rare (if not only) energy/mobility projects in Brazilwhich benefits two distinct regions. In the north, the river communities benefit from access to energy and connectivity; in the south, poor families in the Rocina favela of Rio de Janiero benefit, as the solar textiles are sewn using local Brazilian materials by the internationally recognized Coopa-Roca group. The women of Coopa-Roca have many family ties to the Amazonregion and offer a model for start-up sewing groups in the Amazon area of Santarem as the project expands in Phase II.

The initiative also includes community based training and educationon solar energy, and an accessible ‘starter toolkit’ of usefulmobile phone applications and participatory workshops to demonstrate what a smartphone can do. A parallel participatory publishing project, entitled TAKING CHARGE, will provide river communities with a practical, accessible ‘user’s guide’ with ‘how to’ instructional diagrams and local tips and photos from citizens sharing their insights on how they have used the USB-based solar energy kit and smartphone in their sustainable forest enterprises and communities.

Caboclo people see, use, and experience the forest and vareza with a unique viewpoint because they are inhabitants of the Amazon ecosystem. Yet, since colonial times, interlocutors, foreigners and people outside the region have spoken for the rainforest and local people. With Luz Portatil Brasil, things could change as solar power becomes portable and individuals have the ability to charge a mobile phone/camera anywhere in the forest or on the river. With the ability to record, narrate, and share experiences on the Internet, they can connect their lives and share their livelihoods and concerns about the Amazon with a larger global community.


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