From Conquering Energy to Solutions Mapping: When the Approach Makes Us Human
5 de Octubre de 2022
Humans have been trying to harness and master energy since the dawn of time. Let’s take fire as an example. Its harnessing was a fundamental milestone in the history of mankind. Fire not only provided light and warmth to protect us from the cold, but also made it possible to cook food, which led to a significant leap in our evolution as a species. Cooking is also part of our culture; it involves establishing habits, transmitting learning, and generating significant memories. Let's now see another historic example: light. Humanity lived most of its history with no light during nights, with the discomfort and risks that this entailed. The mastery of both reflects the fact that energy is a central factor in our quality of life, shaping our daily lives. However, problems related to energy access/distribution are not fully overcome. Many people are left behind.
The task of mapping territorial energy solutions entails changing the approach and, instead of focusing on large and traditional infrastructure projects, paying attention to how people-centered initiatives are being delivered. Through their identification, we highlight the potential to foster the development of multiple smaller-scale interventions in vulnerable communities to provide solutions that facilitate basic tasks such as: bathing or doing the laundry at a comfortable temperature, lighting or heating their homes, or cooking without indoor smoke, etc. Particularly, these solutions mapping focuses on renewable energy and addresses one of the major challenges of the climate crisis.
The mapped solutions primarily seek to supply heat and lighting, facilitate cooking, and act as systems. This is what we learned from these solutions:
- There is no one technology that can be applied in every situation. Depending on the situation they are to be used, technologies are either acceptable or not. In some locations with significant levels of solar radiation, solar energy-based solutions may be the natural choice over those that rely on other sources. It is then not surprising that the EcoAndina Foundation is developing solar energy-based initiatives in the Puna. Uniqueness is a fundamental element; a device built to be used in one location with a certain level of radiation might quickly become obsolete in another context. Other solutions include harnessing wind energy to convert it into electricity. For example, 500RPM stands out for releasing an open-patent wind turbine that can be self-built.
- Whether or not to adapt: Having access to technology does not imply a solution. Habits are equally important. As an example, and from an economic point of view, one may argue that solar stoves save the high cost related to gas for many vulnerable families. Another possibility is that some communities would greatly benefit from having solar stoves since they would no longer spend time gathering firewood, deal with problems associated with carrying it, or risk their health by breathing smoke indoor. However, its deployment requires different adaptations that cannot be taken for granted (cooking times that may depend on weather conditions, cooking outdoors, etc.).
- Processes and organizational models do matter. Although technologies and inputs are replicated, there are differences in how the solutions function. It is interesting to see how communities harness them. As a result, a single technology may be used differently according to the local engagement and organization, for instance, when determining what is required. Women provide a lesson in this sense in the next point.
- Women's roles in energy and gender. Women handle most of the domestic and care duties; in other words, they take care of many tasks that require energy solutions, such as cooking food and preserving it, doing laundry or taking care of children, etc. Therefore, it is fundamental to consider their opinions. Some researchers did this in a small town in Salta where almost all the men work at high altitudes to earn a living and only the women and children remain in the area. In the summer, they appreciated the moment when they gather to wash their clothes using water basins exposed to the sun (which heat up in a couple of hours), but they dreaded having to do so with freezing water the rest of the year. As a result, a solar-powered community laundry was created in the town to address what they considered to be an issue.
- Prototypes: From waste to input. Many technologies were designed as prototypes and some of them were manufactured with recycled materials, waste, or very simple elements. The use of this type of materials implies the possibility of scaling them at a different speed and being able to involve other communities in their creation. While Liter of light uses plastic bottles to provide lighting fixtures. Sun Shower uses bottles to install systems that store hot water on the house roofs so that their inhabitants can bathe with hot water.
By systematizing the solutions mapped, we observed that people affected by energy shortages tend to participate in design processes in different ways, either because they interact with members of the science, technology, and innovation ecosystem (researchers, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, etc.) or with civil society organizations with territorial presence. The forms of linkage vary and include iteration in the design of open hardware prototypes, participation in the development of participatory action research projects, participatory management, among others. This interaction entails an exchange of knowledge between people who know their problems very well and others who have technical knowledge that they use in the development of user-centered solutions.
There is definitely a lot to learn from these solutions. Therefore, at Co_Lab we decided to start a new cycle to further explore this mapping, to experiment in order to gain empirical evidence about what works, and to explore the opportunities and emerging trends related to renewable energies. We have plenty of energy to move forward.
 In his book, Micheal Pollan argues that cooking favored digestion and impacted the growth of our brains compared to those of other animals. See: Pollan M (2013) Cooked. A Natural History of Transformation. New York: The Penguin Press. Available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cooked-Natural-TransformationMichael-Pollan/dp/0141975628
 Bryson, B (2010). En casa. Una breve historia de la vida privada. Barcelona: RBA Libros.
 Placco C., Sánchez B., Figueroa O., Saravia A., Gil M., Suligoy H. and Gea M. (2007) Lavadero comunitario con agua caliente a partir de energía solar para la comunidad de Las Capillas. Avances en Energías Renovables y Medio Ambiente Vol 11, pp. 1241-1246. Available at: http://sedici.unlp.edu.ar/handle/10915/93518