Bringing light into the darkness of the Ecuadorian Amazon demands lots of energy

April 24, 2014.  

ZEF Junior Researcher José Jara Alvear talks about his doctoral field research in his home country Ecuador.

Where are you doing your field research exactly and what are the main issues of your research?
I am doing my field research in the southern part of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Here, more than 2,500 Shuar and Achuar families receive electricity using solar home systems under the program “Yatsa Ii Etsari” (Light from our Sun). My research methods combine the Geographic Information System (GIS) and system analysis tools (such as System Dynamics) as an innovative method. The goal is to assess how sustainable decentralized rural electrification works in remote indigenous Amazon communities.

What is interesting about rural electrification in rural and indigenous communities?
Most of the people without electricity live in rural or indigenous communities. Electricity can improve living conditions. For instance, in some Amazon villages, solar home systems provide energy for lighting. In turn, lighting not only drives away bats that spread human rabies in the region but also enables children to study and grown-ups to make handicrafts at night (the latter generating income). It also improves conditions for women to prepare food at night, thus influencing the health of the family positively. Due to electricity, people in this region can have radios, phones or internet, which can help to reduce their isolation.

Why is the situation particularly serious in the Ecuadorian Amazon?
Grid expansion is not feasible due to restricted access to Amazon villages by air and river. Decentralized rural electrification is an alternative. However, the region’s remoteness also makes electrification a difficult endeavor. Projects often fail due to a lack of means of communication and language constraints, high installation and maintenance costs, and a shortage of spare parts. Moreover, low incomes and a lack of education among the population make it difficult for end-users to understand the project and its technology. In addition, the isolated location reduces the possibilities for using energy productively as local communities only have limited access to markets. Last but not least, the level of isolation of Amazon people has led to a situation where electrification depends on the political will of the current administration. After all, the people there do not represent a significant share of the electorate and the region’s electrification is not a profitable undertaking.

What are the advantages of decentralized rural electrification? Is it sustainable?
To make decentralized rural electrification a sustainable enterprise, we need a holistic analysis of the interconnectedness of technological, human and environmental systems in rural areas. We do not only need to understand how sustainable the project is, but also what impact it will have on rural development. The sustainability of decentralized rural electrification involves tradeoffs, and therefore we need to balance its impact on environmental, human and economic spheres.

Why do solar home systems initiatives frequently result in project failures?
The absence of integral planning involving the active participation of future users leads to solutions that are often not suited to the real needs of the people living in the Amazon. Decentralized rural electrification initiatives should not be designed by engineers only. They need a trans-disciplinary approach in order to find answers to how energy can contribute to rural development without harming the fragile ecosystem, while at the same time preserving indigenous culture.

What do you want to achieve with your research work?
I am using different research methods such as literature review, workshops, interviews and quantitative surveys to identify the key success factors for decentralized rural electrification in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I plan to develop a holistic model on this basis. This can then be used as a tool to explore actions needed to ensure the continuous operation of power systems and support rural development in accordance with the needs of the indigenous people.

José Jara Alvear works in ZEF’s Department of Ecology and Natural Resources Management. The interview was conducted by Sebastian Eckert.

You can also read the interview in ZEF news no. 29.


Jose Jara-Alvear

Dr. Jose Jara-Alvear