EcoAndina research center in the Andean high plains of Argentina.
Credit: Courtesy of EcoAndina
Solar Villages Light Up in the Andes
By Marcela Valente
The light and heat of the sun are valuable natural resources that are abundant in Argentina's arid northern Puna, or high plains.
BUENOS AIRES, Dec 7 (Tierramérica).- The residents of the Puna, the Andean high plains in northern Argentina, are seemingly isolated from everything - except the sun. Living on arid land thousands of meters above sea level, they are on their way to becoming "solar villages."
In the north and northwest of Jujuy province, the people are finding that solar energy, a clean and inexhaustible source, can replace firewood, which is increasingly scarce. The EcoAndina Foundation is showing the way through a series of projects.
The Argentine Puna, at altitudes of 2,700 to 4,600 meters above sea level, is part of the vast Andean Altiplano shared by Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru.
EcoAndina's goal is to improve the living conditions of the local residents by taking advantage - sustainably - of its wealth in sun, wind and water, while maintaining the cultural and historic identity of the communities, which are very vulnerable and have meager resources in other areas.
Since it began its efforts two decades ago, some 400 solar energy units have been installed in 30 towns in the region. Family and community kitchens, bread ovens, heaters and hot-water tanks are among the approaches being developed based on the sun's energy.
In addition to cooking in solar ovens as effective as gas ovens, the families can now have heat and hot water in their homes. In the schools there are solar panels to warm the classrooms, and photovoltaic panels to produce electricity.
The projects have several sources of funding. One involves developing a technology to verify reductions of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from using solar ovens. Certification of emissions reductions will help gain access to carbon credits, which can be sold on the market, and the revenue invested in new sustainable energy devices.
The stoves, which can be used inside or outside the home, depending on the model, are manufactured in the region at low cost. The mostly widely used are the parabolic stoves, which are made with highly polished aluminum to concentrate the sun's rays.
These techniques allow residents to replace other sources of energy, those based on fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change.
In the high plains region, with its arid and semiarid soils and fragile and scant vegetation, replacing firewood also helps fight desertification. The altitude and dry environment mean that plants grow very slowly, and the people have to travel farther and farther from home to find firewood.
Studies by the Foundation show that one solar oven reduces household firewood consumption 50 to 70 percent.
Silvia Rojo, president of EcoAndina, explained to Tierramérica that the Puna population traditionally has used three types of plants for firewood: tolas, queñoas and yaretas. But collecting these sources has led to serious desertification, the loss of species and damage to watersheds.
The other choice besides firewood is propane gas, which is sold in 10-kilogram tanks at high prices in this area so far from cities and highways. "The bottled gas costs 13 times more per cubic meter than the methane supplied by public networks in the cities," said Rojo.
"Our work is focused on offering thermal energy alternatives to firewood and gas to about 30 villages," she said.
Today the applications of solar energy "enjoy broad acceptance and high demand, which is why were are spreading the word on 'solar villages'," she said. To achieve that status, the communities receive training with the support of the United Nations Development Program's Global Environment Facility.
The first "solar village" is Lagunillas del Farallón. "It is a category that gives the community a higher rank and fills it with pride, because the residents are recognized for using clean technologies," said Rojo.
The circuit is being completed with other towns, which in the coming years will be meeting their energy demands sustainably: Ciénaga de Paicote, Cabrería, Paicote, Cusi Cusi, San Juan y Oros, La Ciénaga, San Francisco, Casa Colorada and Misa Rumi.
The first location where EcoAndina worked was Misa Rumi. There is a house completely equipped with solar and wind energy, and has been operating since 1997 as the headquarters for fieldwork and research.
The Puna is ideal for this sort of thing. The high plain, part of the Andes mountain range, is very dry and its climate is one of great temperature variation, Christoph Müller, a German expert who works with EcoAndina in the technical area, told Tierramérica.
In a single day in winter, the temperature can range from 20 degrees Celsius during the daytime, to 25 below zero at night. The sky above the altiplano is completely clear during most of the winter.
These traits make the Puna one of the areas with most sun in the world, along with the Bolivian Altiplano and the high plains of Tibet and Afghanistan - and an ideal site for exploring the potential of solar energy.
For now, the initiatives are limited to providing energy and heat to the homes, community centers and schools, but ambitions could go far beyond this.
According to Rojo, EcoAndina is promoting the idea of a solar generator to supply electricity to all of Jujuy province without producing emissions or pollution, and nearly zero production cost. If it is finalized, it would be the first in Latin America, though Brazil and Chile are also pursuing similar projects.
"It would not be able to cover all the tiny towns in the north of the province because they are so dispersed, but they already have community photovoltaic systems in each town," Rojo said.
* IPS correspondent.