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Solar-powered Argentina?

Eilis O'Neill, Buenos Aires / sc
June 7, 2013

A solar power project in Buenos Aires is providing electricity for some of the city's poorest households. Volunteers are hoping to create Argentina's first green community - one rooftop at a time.

A street scene of the living area of 'La Perla' in Buenos Aires.
Image: Eilís O’Neill

Griselda Alderete lives with her two children and her husband in a low-income housing project near Buenos Aires known as La Perla. She spends her days caring for the house and her children, while her husband works as a truck mechanic.

Their rent costs them 140 pesos (120 euros) each month - but, like most of the houses here, the Alderete's home isn't connected to the city's gas network. The residents of La Perla buy propane gas in tanks, which they use to cook their food and heat their water.

Griselda Alderete stands outside her home in La Perla with two of her children.
Griselda Alderete says the new heating system has improved her family's health and wellbeingImage: Eilís O’Neill

"When you buy the propane gas in the tanks, it can cost five to six times more than the gas that is in the network," explained Ashley Valle, who works with FOVISEE, a non-profit sustainability and housing organization in Argentina.

"The gas in the tanks isn't subsidized. So that automatically leaves lower-income groups paying more for energy," Valle said.

FOVISEE is installing solar water heaters on the rooftops of homes in La Perla, hoping to provide residents with a low-cost energy solution, while building awareness about renewables. So far, they have equipped 42 homes with new solar technology.

Mirroring Germany's power policies

Three years ago, Germany decided to unplug itself from nuclear power and embrace renewables. This has had an enormous impact on energy policy within Germany, but also changed how the country makes investments overseas. In Argentina, the German embassy decided to help fund the FOVISEE solar power project, because it was in line with Germany's own sustainable energy goals.

"Germany has changed its energy policy tremendously over the last years, and we opted out when it comes to nuclear energy," explained Klaus Schmidt, who heads the embassy's department of economics and sciences. "We now see the need to foster initiatives worldwide in order to protect our climate."

Despite international support, FOVISEE representatives say local authorities seem largely uninterested in the solar project. Since the re-nationalization of the country's largest oil company in 2012, alternative energy hasn't been much of a policy priority for Argentina's leaders.

With funding from Edenor, an Argentine energy company, and the German Embassy in Buenos Aires, FOVISEE installed solar water heaters on the roofs of forty-two homes in La Perla. The organization hopes to reach one hundred homes as soon as it can secure the funding I hereby declare that I took these photos and grant DW the right to use them online. Eilís O’Neill Angeliefert von Saroja Coelho am 30.5.2013
FOVISEE plans on putting solar power systems like this one on 100 homes in La PerlaImage: Eilís O’Neill

Little government support

Juan Carlos Villalonga is the president of Los Verdes, an environmental group in Buenos Aires. He explained that Argentina adopted energy subsidies during the country’s economic crisis in the late 1990s in order prop up the economy and help people survive. But the subsidies have led to overconsumption and tend to favor middle and high income households.

"These indiscriminate subsidies ended up favoring the wealthiest sectors, because there wasn't a rationally designed system", he told DW.

Villalonga explained that there have also been serious environmental consequences. Argentina's use of fossil fuels has almost doubled since 1990. He believes that the subsidies hide the true costs of energy production. For example, the government has already paid for oil extraction infrastructure, which makes oil seem cheap compared to renewables.

The result is that there is very little investment in the renewables sector in Argentina. But Juan Carlos Villalonga believes that the government could easily shift the country towards renewable energy sources.

"There are companies who are willing to make these projects and there are investors abroad," he said. "All that's needed is the political will and the redirection of subsidies towards renewable energy."

Improving family's lives

Before moving to La Perla, the Alderete family heated water on the stovetop and then carried it into the bathroom.

But now, along with dozens of other families in this low-income neighbourhood, the Alderetes turn the tap and solar-heated water pours out. That makes a huge difference for Griselda Alderete's daughter, who has respiratory problems. Instead of heating the water over a gas flame in the kitchen and dragging pots of water to the bathroom, they can actually create steambaths, which are helpful for people with weak lungs.

Ashley Valle, the international coordinator for FOVISEE, stands in front of a banner for her organization in Buenos Aires.
Ashley Valle volunteers as the international coordinator for non-profit organization FOVISEEImage: Eilís O’Neill

"Now, they've reduced my daughter's medication. Before, she had to take 200 grams. Now, she takes just fifty grams," Alderete said.

With its solar project in the La Perla neighborhood, FOVISEE hopes to demonstrate that alternative energy is practical and affordable and an effective way to improve quality of life in even the poorest neighbourhoods.

It may be some time before Argentina's government decides to use sunlight to power its homes and economy. But locally, interest is growing - the Alderete's neighbors are already asking for heaters of their own and offering to pay for the technology themselves.