An image of solar panels in the solar park in the small town of Armstrong, in the Pampa region, the heart of Argentina’s agricultural production. The park belongs to an electricity cooperative, which until 2017 only bought energy to distribute, but now also produces electricity. CREDIT: FATHER
  • by Daniel Gutman (Buenos Aires)
  • Interpress service

“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 about the prospect of one day being independent in terms of generating our own electricity, says Adrián Marozzi, who today has six solar panels on the back of the house where he lives in Armstrong with his wife. and two children, told IPS.

His home is one of about 50 inches Armstrong with solar panels generating power for the community, added to the 880-panel solar farm installed in the city’s industrial park. Together, they have contributed part of the electricity consumed by the residents of this city 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 different parts of the country.

With an extensive area of ​​almost 2.8 million square kilometers, Argentina is a country where most of the electricity production is geographically concentrated, increasing the need for large power transmission infrastructure and hindering the development of the system.

In this context, and despite the financing obstacles in a country with a serious and prolonged economic crisis, renewable energy is increasingly seen as an alternative for clean electricity production in energy-consuming areas.

Marozzi is a biologist by profession, but devotes himself to agricultural production in Armstrong, almost 400 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires. The city is located in the grasslands of the pampas in the productive heart of Argentina, and is surrounded by fields of soybeans, corn and cattle.

How to get electricity to scattered rural residents was the big challenge that Armstrong Public Works and Services Provision Cooperativewhich consists of 5,000 members representing the city’s 5,000 households, which has been 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 long medium voltage line that brought service to many farms.

Again, in 2016, the Armstrong Cooperative led the way, when it began discussing the pros and cons of venturing into renewable energy production using solar panels in parishes with community participation.

“Those of us who accepted the installation of panels in our homes today receive no direct benefit, but we are investing in a future where we can generate all the electricity we consume. In addition, of course, we care about environmental issues,” Marozzi said in a call from his city.

The 880-panel solar farm with 200kW of installed power is currently being expanded to 275kW thanks to the money Armstrong has saved on energy not bought from the national grid in recent years. The local residents who make up the cooperative decided that the savings from what was generated with solar energy would be invested in the park.

A replicated model

In Argentina, there are about 600 electric cooperatives in small towns and cities in the interior of the country, which were born in the middle of the 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 the cities. But the members of dozens of them realized 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 Agricultural and Electricity Cooperative Monte Caserosa 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 director, 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 services and in 2020 we collaborated with the province’s public electricity company to invest in renewable energy.”

Monte Casero’s solar park has 400 kW of installed capacity thanks to 936 solar panels. Inaugurated in September 2021, it has given such good results that a second park, with similar characteristics, is about to start construction by the 650-member cooperative, as it only caters to rural residents of the municipality.

“We have done everything with the cooperative’s own labor and the design of engineers from National University of the Northeast (UNNE)from our province,” Judiche said. “It’s definitely a model that can be replicated. Renewable energy is our future,” he added from his city, about 700 kilometers north of Buenos Aires.

A slow and bumpy road

According to official figures, the distributed or decentralized production of renewable energy for own 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.

Electric cooperatives that have their own projects for the production of renewable energy operate under this system.

In total, in this country of 44 million people, renewable energy covered almost 14 percent of electricity demand in 2022 and has more than 5,000 MW of installed capacity, although there are practically no major new projects to expand its share of the energy mix.

Most of the electricity demand is covered by thermal production, which contributes more than 25,000 MW, mainly from oil but also from natural gas. Hydropower is the second largest source, with more than 10,000 MW from large dams larger than 50 MW, which are not considered renewable.

Pablo Bertinat, director of The Energy and Sustainability Observatory at 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 production of renewable energy, because it requires investments that are not profitable.

“Community-based projects, which are feasible, have several advantages: they improve local autonomy in the production of electricity, they allow money to be saved from the energy not purchased, which can be reinvested in the city, and they promote decentralization of decision-making in the energy system”, added Bertinat, speaking from Rosario.

The UTN Observatory was responsible for the Armstrong project, in a public-private consortium, together with the cooperative and National Institute of Industrial Technology (Inti).

The expert said that the cooperatives’ renewable energy projects are progressing slowly in Argentina, despite the absence of credit or favorable policies – an indication that they can have a very strong impact on the entire electricity system and even on the generation of employment, if tools were available to promote renewable energy.

“Our goal is to show that not only large companies can advance the agenda to promote renewable energy and the replacement of fossil fuels. In Argentina, the cooperatives are also an important actor on this path,” said Bertinat.

The case of Armstrong also drew 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 Foundation for the Environment and Natural Resources (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 authorities or scientific and technical institutes, to generate the transformations that the energy system needs. “

© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service