Communities in Rio de Janeiro
The most neglected areas in the city of Rio de Janeiro, commonly known as “favelas”, are irregular units that started to develop, usually onto hillsides, during a civil war in the final years of the nineteenth century. As it continued to grow over the years, it was embracing former slaves, immigrants coming from other parts of the country searching for jobs, and any other person that couldn´t afford to buy or rent a house in the city. The consequence is an area inhabited by the poorest class, with an un-existing urban plan, houses and buildings with bad infrastructure, difficult access and precarious public services. This reality created a separation between those inhabitants, commonly known as “people from the hills”, and the inhabitants from the rest of the town, known as “people from the asphalt”. Nowadays, there are around 762 of those communities in Rio with more than 1.4 million people residing in them (approximately 25% of Rio´s population) but, unfortunately, many of them are still neglected by the city. The consequence of the weak presence of the state is that these areas work in a different system, with different rules, where inhabitants had to work in a self-sufficient manner. They had to learn how to protect and help themselves and thus developed a sense of a society that functions as a family. With the goal of handling the daily challenges, and also as a way of having an internal political structure, they created their resident´s association, where a resident is elected by the inhabitants to be an active voice inside and outside the slums. They are responsible for organising forums, creating their land ownership titles, solve issues related to infrastructure, such as sanitation, medical care, energy, transportation and, especially, to establish a connection of those inhabitants with the city hall, bringing all the issues of their region.
Instead of what many may imagine, these areas in Brazil are responsible for generating 78,3 billion Reais (approximately 20 billion euros) per year. This is a direct consequence of the fact that residents had to learn how to be entrepreneurs in order to provide for their needs. Approximately 44% of inhabitants want to have their own business and 62% of them want to do it inside the community. It has become part of their culture to fight for their interests and to show their value to the community, and to the rest of the city. Moreover, since the term favela became a derogatory way of talking about these neglected areas, especially the term favelado – a person that lives in the favela –, they requested to be recognised as a Community, a definition that fits perfectly with the way that they developed and behave.
The problems regarding infrastructure in the favelas are enormous. They have precarious sewage systems, transportation, water, and especially, electricity infrastructure. Energy consumption is increasing due to the rise of technology and evolution of electronic devices, and the expectation is that the demand for electricity is going to continue to grow even more. Light is the company that is responsible for producing and distributing energy in the entire city of Rio de Janeiro but, unfortunately, the service that is provided is not equal for every area of the town.
These circumstances developed a “culture of non-payment” in slums, where dwellers get their energy directly from the overhead cables, creating a system where their home will have electricity without the inhabitant having to pay for it. Even though it seems like they are only taking advantage of the situation, there are many disadvantages to this system. Without a meter, residents cannot have an energy bill, and don’t have a proof of residency that is acknowledged by the city hall, which means they are unable to open bank accounts and receive mail. Moreover, they are vulnerable to electrocution and fire, due to overloads in the transformer. The key to the problem is not only that some residents cannot afford to pay for electricity, but that electric energy is part of a basic need of any resident of a big city, and they should be receiving a better quality service. In addition to these problems, ANEEL– Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency – has set a goal in which electric power companies have to reduce their commercial losses of electricity annually, and now the inhabitants live in constant fear of getting a fine from the energy company.
The main idea of community energy is that local members have full participation in the process of managing and generating their own power through renewable energy. Considering that this is already in line with the modus operandi in Rio´s informal settlements, the implementation of this concept would come as a natural solution that will help dwellers to pay a reasonable price for electricity, lose the dependency on big electric companies, and have a quality service. The approach to this investment will be different in each community, since is important to consider the size, structure, political involvement, background and the need of every area in order to choose the right system.
In the Santa Marta community, the social organisation Insolar implemented such a community energy concept over a period of two years. Dedicated to promoting democratic access to energy through the installation of photovoltaic systems, it works closely with a variety of stakeholders, also providing awareness of the technology and environmental education. With the objective of having the inhabitants as the protagonist, they also invest in the local workforce to improve empowerment of the residents, teaching them how to install PV panels, getting them involved as much as possible, and having as a consequence an increased spirit of collaboration. They have fitted more than 150 PV panels to the roofs of many buildings in Santa Marta, which represents more than harnessing power from the sun – it is also shaping positive future of clean energy and generating a spirit of collaboration among inhabitants.
Even though the sun shines for 2.000 hours a year in Brazil, only 0.2% of the country’s energy comes from solar power. The current Brazilian legislation shows the lack of incentives for renewable energy and especially for solar home systems. Residential and commercial customers are allowed to net-metering, a system that gives the possibility to use energy at any time of the day and in any climatic condition. Those connections will work through the Energy Compensation System, where all the power that is produced in excess becomes an “energy credit” for the customer, measured in kWh, and can be used to complement the months where the production is lower than the amount of energy that is consumed. However, this energy credit is only valid for 60 months, and after that this extra production is “given” to the company, according to normative resolution 482/2012 created by ANEEL. Another critical issue is the minimum fee, or cost of availability, that is always charged even if the production is higher than the consumption, which is problematic for those dwellers that cannot afford to pay for the electrical bill. The necessary amount to invest in this new technology is also a big issue since is still very expensive and is considered to be profitable only after 4 or 5 years of use.
Promoting community energy in Rio
This investment is part of a long-term energy plan with several socio-economic benefits. Projects for community energy should prioritise and encourage local investors, especially to explore the vast possibility of income and finances that can be provided by it. However, the communities should also have in mind that any stakeholder is essential for its development. Implementing targets, creating regulations and facilitating equal market access is a good strategy to attract stakeholders and increase participation of the local inhabitants. Forming partnerships with a dealership, in order to get loans, could also increase the possibility to implement such a project. Moreover, it is vital to learn how to work with the government, considering that it can create special incentives, specifically for slums, in order to promote more significant investments in community energy.
– written by Mariana Cascardo –
 Brown University Library (2012), “Favelas in Rio de janeiro, Past and Present”. Available: https://library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-9/favelas-in-rio-de-janeiro-past-and-present/ [Accessed 07 June 2018]
 The Guardian (2014), “Providing electricity to Rio de Janeiro´s favela”. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/providing-electricity-rio-de-janeiro-favelas [Accessed 07 June 2018]
 Commercial losses, also known as technical losses, is associated with the energy that is not billed, that is lost in the grid during the distribution process, measurement with errors or consumed by units without metering equipment.
 “Aneel define nível de perda por furtos e frauds no cálculo de tarifa”. http://www.brasil.gov.br/editoria/infraestrutura/2011/11/aneel-define-nivel-de-perda-por-furtos-e-fraudes-no-calculo-de-tarifa [Accessed 07 June 2018] (in Portuguese)
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IRENA COALITION FOR ACTION (2018). ”Community Energy: Broadening the Ownership of Renewables”. Available: http://irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Articles/2018/Jan/Coalition-for-Action_Community-Energy_2018.pdf?la=en&hash=CAD4BB4B39A381CC6F712D3A45E56E68CDD63BCD&hash=CAD4BB4B39A381CC6F712D3A45E56E68CDD63BCD [Accessed 07 June 2018]