Inclusive engineering increases energy access in the Amazon forest

An aerial image of eight solar panels installed on stilts with a small utility housing unit below it. There is a group of 12 adults and three children waving at the drone's camera as it hangs in the air and takes their photo. The backdrop is the tropical forest with a river running through it.
Solar panels are powering appliances that allow residents in the village of Porto Rico to refrigerate and freeze food. Photo: Renato Chalu

Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, where isolated forest villages lack access to electrical grids, a team of engineers, social scientists and communications experts is providing power to the people — in more ways than one.

The multidisciplinary team, led by scientists from Michigan State University, is combining modern technology and the traditional knowledge of forest peoples to figure out better ways of delivering electricity to remote villages. Scientists from the U.S. and Brazil are helping them develop energy solutions that meet their needs, using technology they can operate and maintain.

That approach is a new type of inclusive engineering. Engineers, social scientists and communications experts are collaborating with people in three communities of the Tapajós-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, located in the western Pará state, to develop renewable energy solutions.

The result is an energy access model — based on a framework that blends scientific expertise with local community knowledge to develop affordable and sustainable off-grid energy solutions — that could be used in isolated communities around the world.

A man standing in a river checks an experimental water wheel.
A man from Alto Mentae checks an experimental water wheel that was built by the community but did not end up working. Photo: Igor Cavallini Johansen

“This approach could change the way everything happens across the developing world,” said Emilio Moran, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Global Change Science at MSU and leader of the project. “You need to ask the people what they need and then work with them to develop the solution that meets their needs.”

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, will deliver solar energy systems to five Amazon forest communities this year. Depending on their needs and what is environmentally possible, the communities will receive solar panels, in-stream generators or a combination of both.

Mott has committed to providing $400,000 for the project. That money will be used to purchase the components of solar power systems and develop training programs that teach residents in the forest communities how to operate and maintain the photovoltaic systems and in-stream generators.

Team members pitch the idea of an off-grid energy solution to a group of local people in a large meeting room using a projector, laptop and speaker system.
Members of the MSU-led team present the off-grid energy project to members of the Prainha do Maró community. Photo: Igor Cavallini Johansen

“In sensitive ecosystems, such as the vast Amazon forest, off-grid renewable energy systems are providing important health, education and sustainable economic benefits for forest peoples,” said Traci Romine, an Environment program officer at the Mott Foundation. “These systems also avoid the environmental impacts of punching into primary forests to build power lines and other linear infrastructure.”

Romine said the innovative model developed by Moran’s team “could accelerate efforts to ensure that all people around the world have access to modern energy services.”

One of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals calls for universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy globally by 2030. Worldwide, about 775 million people lack access to modern energy services, and 80% of those individuals reside in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Energy Agency.

Most Brazilians have electricity, but there are still about 1 million people in Amazon forest communities who lack access to modern energy services because they cannot connect to the nation’s electrical grid.

An internet router and charging station are set up on a hand carved wood desk with multiple mobile devices waiting to be charged.
An internet router and charging station provide the Cachoeirinha do Mentae community with reliable internet access, which community members identified as a major need. Photo: Igor Cavallini Johansen

Hydropower dams generate two-thirds of all energy used in Brazil, and many new dams are being built across the Amazon. Dams often are controversial because they can disrupt Indigenous and traditional forest communities and devastate river ecosystems, while generating energy for an electrical grid that communities most affected by the structures cannot access. Moran said solar panels and in-stream generators are feasible alternatives for those isolated communities.

However, he also noted that delivering off-grid energy systems to remote forest villages is not as simple as it might seem. His team is determined to avoid the mistakes of the past, when an influx of solar systems without adequate training resulted in massive waste. The MSU project will train people in each village to install, operate and maintain renewable energy systems.

Moran said communities in the Amazon have different energy needs and priorities. Researchers on his team found that villages further from rivers needed solar-powered pumps to obtain water, while others wanted solar-powered lighting. Moran said they all wanted reliable electricity to charge cell phones, access the internet, provide lighting in community buildings and support economic uses, such as preserving and refrigerating fish, fruit and other forest products.

“A lightbulb in the house is nice,” Moran said, “but it’s not as important as internet access and the ability to charge cell phones, which connect people in these forest villages to the world outside.”

Two male researchers are in a boat with equipment that measures the speed of the water below the boat. One man holds a metal stick-like device with sensors on it in the water while the second man reads data from the display of a handheld device.
Professors from Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará measure the speed of the river in the community of Prainha do Maró. Photo: Karina Ninni Ramos

American and Brazilian researchers working to increase energy access in the Amazon already have logged examples of how collaborating with the community led to a better, more sustainable outcome. In one community, Moran’s team rejected a state-of-the-art, in-stream generator that could be purchased off the shelf because it could only be maintained by a distant manufacturer.

Instead, they selected an innovative in-stream generator designed and built by a local firm in Santarem, near the communities of interest in the Amazon. Moran said that firm developed a device that was easier to install, operate and maintain.

“Everything can be made state of the art, but in the middle of the Amazon forest that isn’t always the best option,” he explained.

MSU is documenting the project with photos, articles and a series of short films that will be shared with communities and policymakers who are interested in duplicating this energy access model. Project leaders also hope those materials, along with surveys of community needs, will counter misinformation across the Amazon basin that incorrectly portrays solar power and in-stream generators as impractical.

A woman paddles a boat as it glides across the mirror-like surface of a river reflecting the sky.
A woman travels in a canoe along the Mentae River in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Igor Cavallini Johansen

Moran said one of the most unexpected benefits of a solar system installed in the tiny village of Cachoerinha do Mentae came during the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament. On the day the solar panels began generating electricity for the community, villagers were able to access the internet and, for the first time, watch a live broadcast of Brazil’s soccer team in action.

“People in the community were just ecstatic about being able to watch the World Cup live and see the first score by their country’s team,” Moran said. “They were no longer isolated from the outside as they were before, and they can now think about how to use the energy to improve their lives.”