By Daniel Gutman
PILAR, Argentina, Jul 8 2019 – “This is the best thing ever invented for the poor,” says Emanuel del Monte, pointing to a tank covered in black tarps protruding from the roof of his house. It forms part of a system built mostly from waste materials, which heats water through solar energy and is improving lives in Argentina.
Thanks to him, hundreds of families in three poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the Argentine capital now have hot water for bathing. They used to heat water in pots but had abandoned the practice in recent years because of the high costs of cooking gas.
Del Monte, 32, his wife and five children live in an unpainted cinder-block house with a half-built brick perimeter wall in the neighborhood of Pinazo, Pilar municipality, about 50 km north of Buenos Aires.”When they first tell you about it, you don’t understand what they’re talking about. Then you realize it’s an opportunity you can’t miss out on because it changes your life.” – Verónica González
Pinazo is a community of about 5,000 people that reflects the social deterioration in the 24 municipalities surrounding Buenos Aires, which together with the capital account for more than 13 million of the country’s 44 million inhabitants.
Neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the capital are home to 130,000 of the 200,000 people who lost their jobs in 2018 in this South American country, where the economy is in a deep crisis and poverty has climbed to 36 percent of the population, according to official figures.
The paved streets of Pinazo are lined with houses with roof tiles and gardens, run-down but clearly middle-class.
But if you turn down the dirt side streets, many of the homes are shacks made of boards, corrugated metal and even pieces of tarp, between empty dirt lots where cats, dogs and chickens wander about.
On some Saturdays, however, things get busy on several of the empty lots: dozens of volunteers, mostly young people, work for hours building solar heaters, together with many local residents.
The volunteers gather early on one side of the freeway from Buenos Aires and come to the neighbourhood together, in cars and trucks loaded with huge bags full of plastic bottles, cans, cardboard boxes, old mattresses and tarps.
In addition, local residents at the site gather useful waste products, which they used to burn or throw into the polluted stream that gives its name to the neighborhood, since there is no garbage collection system.
Convened by the non-governmental organisation Sumando Energías, the volunteers say their goodbyes just before sunset, after building and installing on the roofs of up to four houses solar energy collectors and 90-litre thermal tanks, which keep the water warm because they are covered with mattresses and tarps.
“Each collector is made with 264 plastic bottles, 180 cans and 110 cardboard boxes. Most of the materials we use are reused,” Pablo Castaño, 32, who founded Sumando Energías in 2014, tells IPS as he walks around, supervising the work of the volunteers.
“I am convinced that sustainability is the only way to improve things for the poor. Social and economic solutions go hand in hand with environmental solutions,” says Castaño.
The head of Sumando Energías says he came into contact with the conditions in low-income areas while volunteering for another NGO, Techo (Roofs), dedicated to providing decent housing in slums, and became interested in renewable energy while studying to become an industrial engineer.
Castaño was born and raised in the southern province of Río Negro, near Vaca Muerta, the giant unconventional oil and gas field that the government is counting on to give a boost to Argentina’s declining economy. But he argues that “it is not the burning of fossil fuels that is going to save us.”
The solar collectors consist of 12 parallel two-metre-long PVC tubes covered with cans that absorb heat from the sun and heat the water inside the pipe. They are then wrapped in plastic bottles and cardboard.
“That’s how we generate the greenhouse effect that keeps the temperature up. The next step is to set up a closed circuit between the pipes and the tank, which is placed on top, as hot water becomes dense and tends to rise. After about 60 round-trip cycles, the water is hot, between 40 and 65 degrees (Celsius),” says Lucía López Alonso, one of the volunteers.
“What is generated is not electricity, but solar thermal energy,” she tells IPS.
Emanuel del Monte’s wife, Mariana Alio, who works at a greengrocer’s, says their family used to heat up water in pots using cooking gas, for bathing, but economic difficulties forced them to only use gas for cooking.
“Some people in the neighbourhood still think I’m crazy when I tell them that I now have hot water from a system built using waste products,” says Del Monte, who recently lost his job as a maintenance worker in Escobar, a municipality near Pilar, and today does odd jobs, mowing lawns or as a handyman.
In both Pilar and Escobar, slums exist side by side with summer homes and gated communities – some of them wealthy and all of them surrounded by walls and fences and protected by private security guards – where slum-dwellers can find casual work.
“(José) Alano didn’t patent it in order for his design to be used freely. We also follow his philosophy and uploaded the solar collector manual to our Facebook page, so anyone can access it,” Castaño explains.
In four years, Sumando Energías has built and installed 174 solar collectors in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
Castaño explains that the system for making solar collectors with reused materials was designed in 2002 in Brazil by retired mechanic José Alano, who promoted it in the south of his country.
The activist says the units have a useful life of 10 years or more, but points out that they last longer because they do not have mechanical parts. In addition, the plastic bottles can be easily replaced when they eventually darken and no longer perform their function of maintaining heat.
The aim of the initiative is not only to provide a solution for poor families but also to pass on know-how about renewable energy to the volunteers, who donate 1,500 pesos (about 33 dollars), which are used to cover the cost of the materials.
“We also receive some donations from companies, but we don’t accept any from companies linked to the fossil fuel business,” says Castaño.
Sumando Energías is now working on prototypes of solar cookers that will allow families like those living in the Pinazo neighbourhood, most of whom depend on the informal labour market, to cut their dependence on cooking gas cylinders, which cost 10 dollars to refill.
“Many of us here have had 25-litre electric water heaters, but they tend to burn out because the electric power source is unreliable,” says Verónica González, a 34-year-old local resident who lives with her mother, three daughters and a niece, as she cuts plastic bottles alongside the volunteers.
Her family is among the latest to benefit from the solar heaters designed by Alano. “When they first tell you about it, you don’t understand what they’re talking about. Then you realize it’s an opportunity you can’t miss out on because it changes your life,” she tells IPS.