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Bringing Communities Together to Build a Brighter Future

A solar-energy start-up is enabling a community in Brazil to build its own sustainable and affordable power supply.

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A solar-energy start-up is enabling a community in Brazil to build its own sustainable and affordable power supply.

Soccer-mad school children shout for the ball as they race down a street in Santa Marta, skillfully dribbling, passing, shooting, and scoring to upbeat music pumping from the open windows of brightly painted houses. One of the first neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro to receive public investments in security and infrastructure—thanks, to a great extent, to Rio's hosting of the Summer Olympic Games in 2016—Santa Marta is a colorful, welcoming community determined to build a better life for itself. For its residents, this begins by securing affordable and reliable access to electricity.

Many of us take electricity for granted, but for the people of Santa Marta—who had to cope with often improvised access to electricity—it came with high prices and low reliability. Frustrated, they were eager for new ideas that would provide lighting for their children to study by and power for their businesses, making everyday tasks easier and freeing up time for leisure activities.

Shell’s “Make the Future” campaign promotes people’s ingenuity to answer energy challenges, identifying exciting and innovative ways to harness and generate electricity. In Santa Marta, the call was answered by the Brazilian energy start-up Insolar. Co-founder Henrique Drumond is passionate about bringing affordable solar energy to low-income neighborhoods in Brazil—and believes that a small change can have a big impact. What Shell found special about Insolar’s approach is the way it puts the community at the heart of the project, empowering local residents to build their own solar infrastructure in a spirit of collaboration.

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Supported by funds and mentoring from Shell, Insolar worked with Santa Marta residents to understand their specific needs and how best to meet them. It then trained more than 35 residents in the skills required to install, run, and maintain the solar panels, along with the electrical installations the system needs to function. Helped by some 2,000 hours of sunshine every year, the community started taking control of its own sustainable power supply.

The first solar panels were fitted to a children’s nursery. True to Drumond’s vision, this relatively small action is bringing huge social and economic benefits to Santa Marta’s residents. All the energy the nursery saves thanks to the solar panels is invested in better food and educational materials for the children, and basic maintenance, making it easier for parents and grandparents to focus on their own work and earn a salary. What’s more, the system generates more than 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year, allowing surplus energy to go back into the grid to power public facilities, including medical centers and transportation.

As more solar panels are installed on Santa Marta’s community buildings and (with subsidized funding) on private homes, renewable electricity is becoming more available and more affordable. Along with bringing comfort and convenience, the electricity helps new businesses boost employment and add to the local economy, making the neighborhood safer, healthier, and more prosperous.

What Shell finds most impressive is the way Santa Marta has embraced Insolar. By taking ownership of the project, residents are taking control of their energy future. When the sun rises, it energizes the neighborhood with solar panels installed by residents. When streetlights turn off, emergency solar lights turn on in locations chosen by residents. When cellphone batteries fade, solar rechargers provide residents the power to continue working and to stay in touch with family members. In this way, Insolar is about more than harnessing power from the sun. It’s about freeing up human energy and resources for investment in such things as better education and more reliable street lighting, and to meet the needs of locals when and where they require it. More broadly, it’s about harnessing the collaborative energy of an entire neighborhood to provide a positive legacy for future generations.

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