Francisco Noguera

A Visit to IDEAAS: Clean Energy Solutions for Brazil’s Poor

A few weeks I had a great opportunity to visit Brazil, as part of a research project currently underway at New Ventures, aimed at benchmarking clean energy solutions for the base of the pyramid.

My host this time around was the team of IDEAAS, one of the most interesting and widely documented organizations in the social entrepreneurship for energy access arena, thanks to the leadership and vision of founder Fabio Rosa and the recognitions granted to him by organizations like Ashoka, Schwab Foundation, the Tech Museum Awards in Silicon Valley, Lemelson Foundation and Banco Itau in Brazil, among others.

IDEAAS works develops a wide variety of projects throughout Brazil, which may be classified under three main streams of activity: energy access (bringing energy to off grid homes through solar systems that provide energy for lighting purposes as well as use of small appliances); efficient use of energy (promoting the use of renewable and clean technologies in activities that previously used dirtier and more expensive alternatives), and social entrepreneurship, promoting the advance of a new entrepreneurial class in clean energies through a Learning Center for renewable energies in Brazil.

Let me go a bit farther into detail showing you, through pictures, what IDEAAS is all about. I began my trip at the main office of IDEAAS in Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. From the main office, IDEAAS oversees its different projects and tracks the performance of and payments coming from each of the close to 260 installations running so far. IDEAAS staff does so through a software specifically designed for that purpose, as well as detailed information sheets that indicate the precise location and details of each and every client.

Next stop was Santo Antonio da Patrulha, where IDEAAS’ Learning Center in Renewable Energies is located. Fabio welcomed us with a tour of the different technologies installed (solar, wind and small hydro), which provide most of the energy for the house that will serve as a training location for up and coming clean energy entrepreneurs in Brazil. Below are some pictures of Fabio Rosa, IDEAAS’s solar panels, a small wind turbine manufactured by Enersud and the small hydro system installed at the Center.

Solar panels and wind turbine at IDEAAS’s Learning Center

Aside from seeing the technologies at work, Rosa envisions that visitors have access to information and frameworks to make sound decisions when choosing the technologies and business models required to bring energy to a given off grid area. This model (the Learning Center as an incubator for new energy entrepreneurs) will be replicable on an international level, and Mr. Rosa is actively pursuing partnerships to establish it in countries outside of Brazil.

After the visit to the Learning Center, we took off and went farthersouth to visit two of IDEAAS current customers, who serve as examples of the services it is able to provide: energy access at the household level and energy efficiency products, through which users replace dirtier and costlier alternatives. Higor Renck, a project manager with IDEAAS, did a great job guiding me through the entire trip.

Higor appears in the picture below, together with one of IDEAAS’ first customers in the Luz Agora project, which brings energy to off-the-grid households through solar energy kits.

IDEAAS’ home kits consist of a set of solar panels (mounted on the roof in the picture below), a set of batteries, a charge controller (manufactured by IDEAAS) and a set of LED lightbulbs. They may also include dedicated connections for appliances.

Having visited the installation of the Luz Agora project, Higor and I drove farther south to the city of Sao Jose do Norte, where IDEAAS is currently implementing a flagship project called Fasol do Sol (or Sun Lighthouse). The goal of the project is making solar energy a viable alternative to replace the kerosene lamps currently used by shrimp farmers to attract their catch during the nights. Shrimp farming is one of the main economic activities in the region, and IDEAAS technology has the potential to serve the same use as kerosene while reducing the total lighting cost by more than 50% throughout the season. The kerosene expenses are replaced by a monthly leasing fee paid to IDEAAS by the farmers, which includes access to equipment and maintenance services as needed.

For this year’s fishing season (the first with IDEAAS’s presence in this community) only one farmer agreed to switch to solar technology in the municipality of Sao Jose do Norte. The early adopter was our host in this leg of the visit and graciously told us how everybody else called him “crazy” at the beginning of the season. Now, with almost a full season behind him and strong numbers to back his decision, many other families are interested in switching to solar lanterns to do their fishing.

IDEAAS installed its solar panels in his boat (to provide lighting to the two farmers living in it during the season) as well as on its fishing nets (which are a good 40 minutes away from the shore, by boat) where the lamps are needed during the nights. Higor, from IDEAAS, also joined us in this leg and his closeness to all of IDEAAS customers striked me throughout the trip. It reminded me that the presence of such community leaders is a key factor of for trust building and success in ventures involving technology adoption amongst low income communities.

These belong in museums”, explained “El Gordo” (our host), holding an old kerosene lamp that has been replaced by solar-powered LED lamps, as shown below. Not only are IDEAAS’ lamps cheaper and safer (they are not made out of glass, for instance) but they also turn on and off automatically depending on the presence or absence of sunlight.

When we turned around to come back, our host adjusted the position of his panel to take advantage of every single ray of sunlight available. “Gotta take advantage of every minute in the day”, he said.

Three days after my visit, the community of fishermen was set to meet with the goals of assessing how many new families were potentially interested in switching to IDEAA’s technology for the next season.

What’s next for IDEAAS?

In spite of their success in becoming a reference for rural electrification in Brazil and worldwide, IDEAAS faces challenges related to government policies in Brazil and strategic questions related to the true scale potential and profit motive of its operation. In effect, the federal government in Brazil recently announced an agressive initiative to bring “energy to all” in Brazil, through traditional centralized generation systems. Although that’s great news in its own right, it leaves no space or private sector solutions like IDEAAS, unless utilities decide to partner with them in the purpose of reaching remote areas like the state of Amazonia in the far north of the country.

As far as the profit motive, IDEAAS is moving towards incorporating a for profit model that allows its approach to scale and its clean energy solutions to be adopted not only at the BoP level but in other segments of the economy as well. The new company will not entirely replace the work of IDEAAS, however. Its work as an NGO will still be crucial in areas like community development, public policy advocacy and, most importantly, the development of the Learning Center concept, which, in my view, has the potential to drive significant scale in this space by creating a “one stop shop” for clean energy BoP approaches and potentially incubating new entrepreneurial models for the provision of energy in remote areas.

The construction site for the Learning Center in Santo Antonio da Patrulha appears in the picture below. I look forward to updating it with a new one once construction is completed, and also to sharing how the model continues to develop and replicates in other countries.

Thanks to Fabio Rosa and the whole IDEAAS team for their hospitality during these days of learning in the south of Brazil.