While South American countries have made significant progress in energy access, tens of millions of people (more than 30 million, according to conservative estimates) do not have access, particularly in remote areas. From 24-26 January 2016, experts from across the region gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities for energy access. The forum “Sustainable energy sources for rural electrification in off-grid communities in South America: Challenges and prospects” was co-hosted by Soluciones Prácticas (Practical Action) and the Smart Villages Initiative in Lima, Peru. It marked the beginning of the Smart Villages Initiative’s engagement in South America. Representatives from the public sector, private sector, academia, and civil society attended, spanning numerous countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru from South America as well as Canada, the Dominican Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The forum aimed to facilitate analysis and exchange between the public and private sectors, academia, and civil society based on first-hand experiences in the field of energy in rural off-grid communities. Topics for discussion included rural electrification; energy generation and distribution; the inclusion of renewable energy sources (RES) in the energy matrix; productive use of energy in rural communities; clean cooking technologies; efficient heating; and rural energy entrepreneurship. The discussions helped to outline new prospects for reducing rural poverty in South American countries through access to, and use of, sustainable energy sources.
In discussions at the workshop, several important themes emerged in terms of challenges and barriers. Energy access, particularly electricity, is limited by geography and the by the dispersed nature of the communities, often made up of indigenous minority groups that are dispersed throughout the countryside. It was noted that remote communities often need tailor-made approaches given the wide variety of reasons for remoteness and the unique challenges of reaching these communities (e.g., in mountains, forests, etc.). Moreover, there are high transaction costs and problems with poor quality and counterfeit products. Financing was a hot topic among participants and featured in the presentations as well as the group discussion at the end of Day 2.
In comparison to some other regions where the Smart Villages Initiative has held workshops, there are fewer small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) focusing on energy access in South America, though we were fortunate to welcome some SMEs that are working in the region on solar home systems, for example. It was clear, however, that NGOs have a strong presence in many of the countries represented at the forum. Some governments have taken responsibility for, and a lead in delivery of, energy access and the protection of indigenous people’s rights, though this was variable within the region. Over the past few years, several countries in South America have changed status in the eyes of major donors (such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile) and are no longer considered officially “developing” by the European Union and the World Bank, for example. This change in status for some countries means that financing for development of the “fringes”, the most remote and poorest communities, is particularly affected.
It was also noted that government involvement in energy access can lead to red tape and discourage, or even prevent, private sector participation; the right type of involvement will be necessary going forward. Several speakers also critiqued some governments’ approaches to tendering processes for delivery of energy access initiatives, noting that the selection of the private sector partner should be more rigorous and involve evaluations from experts with experience in the country. The need for better planning and coordination between government ministries—not only those focusing on energy—also featured in the discussions.
Throughout the workshop, speakers called for energy access not to be an end in itself but rather as a means of social inclusion. Examples were given of the ways that energy access can bring people together, such as a small restaurant in the mountains that not only cooked food but provided a warm space for people to gather. Energy access for productive uses was also a central theme: refrigeration had also brought together a fishing community, which was able to store fish and bring them to market regularly instead of in one go.
Many remote communities still need basic levels of energy for lighting and clean cookstoves. Several speakers described the ways in which they had brought light and clean cookstoves to remote communities. Distribution was a challenge given the dispersed nature of these communities. In addition, technical assistance and local know-how (via training, infographics, etc.) were crucial aspects of continued satisfaction with household lighting systems. Several speakers noted that clean cookstoves have been, and will continue to be, crucial for reducing reliance on biomass and solid fuels.