By Daniel Gutman
BUENOS AIRES, May 26 2023 (IPS)
When the residents of Armstrong, a town of 15,000 in western Argentina, began to meet to discuss a renewable energy project, they agreed that there could be many positive effects and that it was not just a question of doing their bit in the global effort to mitigate climate change.
“The proposal was to use the rooftops and yards of our houses to install solar panels. And I accepted the idea basically because I was excited by the prospect that one day we would become independent in generating our own electricity,” Adrián Marozzi, who today has six solar panels in the back of the house where he lives in Armstrong with his wife and two children, told IPS.“Community-based projects, which are feasible, have several advantages: they improve local autonomy in the generation of electricity, they allow money to be saved from the energy that is not purchased, which can be reinvested in the city, and they promote the decentralization of decision-making in the energy system.” — Pablo Bertinat
His home is one of about 50 in Armstrong with solar panels generating power for the community, added to the 880-panel solar farm installed in the town’s industrial park. Together they have contributed part of the electricity consumed by the inhabitants of this town in the western province of Santa Fe since 2017.
This is a pioneering project in Argentina, built with public technical organizations and community participation through a cooperative where decisions are made democratically, which has since been replicated in various parts of the country.
With an extensive area of almost 2.8 million square kilometers, Argentina is a country where most of the electricity generation has been concentrated geographically, which raises the need for large power transmission infrastructure and poses a hurdle for the development of the system.
In this context, and despite the financing obstacles in a country with a severe long-lasting economic crisis, renewable energies are increasingly seen as an alternative for clean electricity generation in power-consuming areas.
Marozzi is a biologist by profession, but is dedicated to agricultural production in Armstrong, almost 400 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires. The town is located in the pampas grasslands in the productive heart of Argentina, and is surrounded by fields of soybeans, corn and cattle.
How to bring electric power to widely scattered rural residents was the great challenge that the Armstrong Public Works and Services Provision Cooperative, made up of 5,000 members representing the town’s 5,000 households, grappled with for years.
The institution was born in 1958 and in 1966 it marked a milestone, when it created the first rural electrification system in this South American country, with a 70-kilometer medium voltage line that brought the service to numerous farms.
Once again, in 2016, the Armstrong cooperative pointed the way, when it began to discuss in assemblies with community participation the advantages and disadvantages of venturing into renewable energy production by means of solar energy panels.
“Those of us who accepted the installation of panels in our homes today receive no direct benefit, but we are betting on a future in which we can generate all of the electricity we consume. In addition, of course, we care about environmental issues,” Marozzi said in a conversation from his town.
The 880-panel solar park with 200 kW of installed power is currently being expanded to 275 kW thanks to the money that Armstrong saved from energy that was not purchased in recent years from the national grid. The local residents who make up the cooperative decided that the savings from what was generated with solar energy should be invested in the park.
A replicated model
In Argentina there are about 600 electrical cooperatives in small cities and towns in the interior of the country, which were born in the mid-20th century, when the national grid was still quite limited and access to electric power was a problem.
These cooperatives usually buy and distribute energy in towns. But the members of dozens of them realized that they too could generate clean electricity, after visiting Armstrong’s project, and launched their own renewable energy initiatives.
One of the cooperatives that also has a solar park is the Agricultural and Electricity Cooperative of Monte Caseros, a city of about 25,000 inhabitants in the northeastern province of Corrientes.
“The cooperative was born in 1977 out of the need to bring energy to rural residents,” engineer Germán Judiche, the association’s technical manager, told IPS. “Today we have a honey packaging plant and a cluster of silos for rice, the main crop in the area. Since 2018 we have also distributed internet service and in 2020 we partnered with the province’s public electricity company to venture into renewable energy.”
The Monte Caseros solar park has 400 kW of installed capacity thanks to 936 solar panels. It was inaugurated in September 2021 and has provided such good results that a second park, with similar characteristics, is about to begin to be built by the 650-member cooperative, because it supplies only rural residents of the municipality.
“We have done everything with the cooperative’s own labor and the design by engineers from the National University of the Northeast (UNNE), from our province,” said Judiche. “It is definitely a model that can be replicated. Renewable energy is our future,” he added from his town, some 700 kilometers north of Buenos Aires.
A slow and bumpy road
According to official figures, the distributed or decentralized generation of renewable energy for self-consumption, which allows the surplus to be injected into the grid, has 1,167 generators registered in 13 of Argentina’s 23 provinces, with more than 20 megawatts of installed power.
Electricity cooperatives that have their own renewable energy generation projects operate under this system.
In total, in this country of 44 million people, renewable energies covered almost 14 percent of the demand for electricity in 2022 and have more than 5,000 MW of installed capacity, although there are practically no major new projects to expand their proportion of the energy mix.
Most of the electricity demand is covered by thermal generation, which contributes more than 25,000 MW, mainly from oil but also from natural gas. Hydropower is the next largest source, with more than 10,000 MW from large dams greater than 50 MW, which are not considered renewable.
Pablo Bertinat, director of the Energy and Sustainability Observatory of the National Technological University (UTN) based in the city of Rosario, also in Santa Fe, explained that in a country like Argentina it is impossible to follow a model like Germany’s widespread residential generation of renewable energy, because it requires investments that are not viable.
“Community-based projects, which are feasible, have several advantages: they improve local autonomy in the generation of electricity, they allow money to be saved from the energy that is not purchased, which can be reinvested in the city, and they promote the decentralization of decision-making in the energy system,” added Bertinat, speaking from Rosario.
The UTN Observatory was in charge of the Armstrong project, in a public-private consortium, together with the cooperative and the National Institute of Industrial Technology (Inti).
The expert said that the cooperatives’ renewable energy projects are advancing slowly in Argentina, despite the fact that there is no credit nor favorable policies – an indication that they could have a very strong impact on the entire electrical system and even on the generation of employment, if there were tools to promote renewables.
“Our aim is to demonstrate that not only large companies can advance the agenda of promoting renewable energy and the replacement of fossil fuels. In Argentina, cooperatives are also an important actor on this path,” Bertinat said.
The case of Armstrong also sparked interest from the environmental movement, which is helping to drive the growth of renewable energy in the country.
Jazmín Rocco Predassi, head of Climate Policy at the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN), told IPS that this is “an illustration that the energy transition does not always come from top-down initiatives, but that communities can organize themselves, together with cooperatives, municipal governments or science and technology institutes, to generate the transformations that the energy system needs.”