Get your place in the sun and read this insightful interview we had with Rodrigo Lopes Sauaia from Brazil, the CEO of ABSOLAR.
Associação Brasileira de Energia Solar Fotovoltaica (Brazilian Solar Photovoltaic Energy Association) is an organisation which represents and promotes the solar photovoltaic sector in Brazil.
Rodrigo: Sharing an overview on my background, I had the chance live in Freiburg and develop research at the Fraunhofer ISE, as an international collaboration for my PhD, and that was a life-changing experience. During that time, I had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge and experience on solar cells and solar cell processing technologies with some of the best researchers on these topics in Europe and worldwide. Before that, at my home country of Brazil I was already working on research and development of solar cell processing with laser technologies. In Germany, I had the chance to use different tools and compare the results between two different processing techniques and technologies. This effort has resulted in my PhD; first one in English from my Brazilian university, PUCRS, and I was thrilled to receive an outstanding grade and the first honours PhD from the program back in 2013.
SEE: What happened in Brazil in the solar industry before 2013? What made you come together with other people to create an organisation that represents solar PV in Brazil?
I have been working in Solar PV since 2003. At that time, the Brazilian PV market was a very much niche market with mainly off-grid systems bringing electricity to communities that were disconnected from the grid and a few R&D projects in universities. There was no structured regulatory and legalframeworks for thissector and market to develop. In the electricity sector,which is a sector regulated by the government and regulatory agency, thedevelopment of such frameworks is the key for te market to grow and thrive.
A landmark development for the sector started in 2010, when the Brazilian National Regulatory Agency (ANEEL) stated a hearing procedure aiming to remove barriers for the development of distributed generation from renewable energy, which are small renewable energy systems installed directly by the society (homes, businesses, rural producers and others). I got directly involved in this process and proposed several recommendations based on best practices already used in other countries, including European ones. ANEEL finally published a national regulation in 2012, creating a net-metering program to promote small scale renewable energy systems and this kickstarted the market. In 2013, companies were working together to promote solar PV, but still under the umbrella of other entities and associations which were not focused in solar energy. At that timeI received an invitation from a group of companies to start an association that could be a united voice to represent the solar PV sector in Brazil and this was the beginning of ABSOLAR. ABSOLAR was structured from the clear need of the market and sector to have such a united, structured voice to negotiate with the government and to represent the sector on behalf of the companies and entrepreneurs that were active in Brazil. After we started this initiative, other companies from the sector started to support it and joined ABSOLAR as well.
On the international level, ABSOLAR also helped build our global voice for the solar PV sector in 2015, as co-founder of the Global Solar Council (GSC), launched at COP21 in Paris, as the sector’s response and commitment to the global fight against climate change. This council was founded by 17 national an regional solar PV associations from throughout the world. Now, it represents more than 40 countries. Under the GSC, ABSOLAR is coordinating a taskforce focused on Latin America. One of the three main roles of this task force is to support creating a critical mass of companies that can give birth to national associations in Latin American markets where there are none.
SEE: We know that it is very important to have that kind of organisations to stand up against the fossil fuel industry that has monopolised the energy generation for decades now. So, you are doing such inspiring and essential work by creating such examples to be followed.
Rodrigo: It is important to highlight that structuring a new association is a serious decision. It needs to be taken in alignment with good practices in the solar PV sector. The local companies must be directly involved in the process – because the entities are only as strong as the members that constitute it. We also note that this is very different from having an association that solely focuses on technical or academic aspects. ABSOLAR represents the whole value chain and takes into consideration the needs of the market and also the necessity to build new public policies, incentives and programs to promote solar PV locally, regionally and nationally in Brazil.
SEE: After talking about the early days ABSOLAR, let us jump to 2020. This year shook all corners of the globe with the COVID-19 pandemic. In another interview in March 2020, you said that you were concerned about the future of small, family-owned PV companies in Brazil. Now in December, how do you see the situation?
Rodrigo: Indeed, the solar PV companies that were hit hardest by the pandemic were smaller ones, or the ones starting their operations. On the other hand, they were also the ones that were more flexible to adapt to the situation at hand. Smaller groups are quicker to make the necessary changes in their structures and procedures to face new and unexpected challenges, as well as to take advantage of new opportunities. They have the agility that the big companies do not have. Also, the solar PV sector has shown incredible resilience during this global pandemic. Despite the economic difficulties, in Brazil and in the world, the solar PV market still grew strongly. The Brazilian solar PV market had a recovery in V shape, that is, the market was hardly impacted at first, but also recovered strongly and swiftly. The companies that could digitalise their operations were able to adapt getting ready to work with protective measures, such as masks and required social distancing. They managed to find clients even in this challenging environment. Unfortunatelly, some companies could not resist this period.
SEE: I know that you were trying to negotiate with the federal government and congress about the uses of renewable energy positively to reduce electricity bills for low-income consumers. How did it work out?
Rodrigo: Well, ABSOLAR has a very open way of communicating with the local, state and federal governments. We always nourished the dialogue between the private and public sectors in Brazil, as we believe in building solutions in partnership between all stakeholders of society. During the pandemic, when a challenge with this magnitude came, we increased the interaction and conversation with the government even more. Initially, the government focused very firmly on the health sector to help public health and minimize life losses due to the pandemic. After some time, the need to take care of the economy gained importance and became clear. Then the government started to financially support low-income population for the necessities, which irrigated the economy with resources to move forward. Companies received help through special financing lines as means to reduce the number of jobs lost due to the economic downturn of the pandemic. This is now being followed by a national effort to rebuild the economy. ABSOLAR has been working very hard to bring awareness to decision makers and the society that solar can be part of the solution, helping to strengthen our economy and protect our environment.
An example is the State of Espírito Santo, which launched the Generate Program in November to generate not only electricity but also social, economic, and environmental development. It was an initiative developed by the state government of the Espírito Santo to triple the investments in the solar sector in the coming years to create jobs and opportunity. Today, it is the 16th state that most invests in solar. It is not a good position because we have 27 states, but we had a similar initiation with the state of Goiás in 2017; it was then 14th now it ranks 6th. That kind of jump is what we want with Espírito Santo.
SEE: These kinds of initiatives are so important to show the authorities that it is not only about the energy itself but also everything else that surrounds it.
Rodrigo: Yes, what you mentioned is very important. When we negotiate with the governments, we do not see solar as an only small sector that is focused on one thing. We see it as a tool to help the overall development of the country on a sustainable path. When we look at it holistically, we see that solar is the part of the solution in many aspects of society.
Carolina: Even though COVID has been challenging, it has also forced people to look at different ways to do things. This situation can be an example for others to turn their faces towards solar and other renewable energy sources for the long-term positive action.
Rodrigo: It is also important to mention that as much as about governments, it is also about the legislative branch. They are becoming more aware of the global challenges and the fact that we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. So, the pandemic, in a brutal way, has thought us that we are connected in vulnerability. If we keep polluting the world as we have done so far, we will reap all the adverse effects it causes. Brazil is a country very vulnerable to climate change. We depend on our nature for agriculture and water and all necessary means for existence. These sources also cross borders. If we do our share and act on the global level, we can avoid failure.
Carolina: I have many questions left, so we are hoping for a future interview and update, but I will finally ask this, could you tell us the big plans of ABSOLAR for 2021?
Rodrigo: First, I want to provide a perspective from the Southern Hemisphere where we are reaching the summer; it is the peak of the solar for us here. So, it is a moment of joy, among the difficulties of the pandemic. ABSOLAR is working on many fronts. For instance, we are working on getting the country ready for energy storage. Energy storage is essential because, whether with batteries or other energy storage systems, we can take advantage of solar energy even when the sun is not shining.
We are also working on to create more financing opportunities for end-consumers and entrepreneurs to get their projects running. We are trying to avoid setbacks regarding the regulation of distributed energy. We want to empower the consumers to produce and consume at their own homes and business and rural properties —this a challenge we have for 2021. We also want to increase the number of state-level programs.
Freiburg is an inspiration in that regard as the solar heart of Germany. Freiburg has beautiful solar buildings. In Vauban, there are marvellous solar structures. When people see such examples first-hand, they are also inspired to use it. We have a lot to learn from others and a lot to do to help other communities to move forward. Despite all the evolution we had since 2013, solar still represent %1.7 per cent of electricity matrix in Brazil.
SEE: Rodrigo, thank you so much for your time. We are glad to hear the inspiring developments from the Solar Hemisphere, which we hope will have a positive global impact! We hope our readers can reach your communication channels from the links we provide here. For webinars and podcast ABSOLAR's YouTube; Insights and daily updates on IG; Twitter and Facebook accounts are also active channels to follow and reach out to ABSOLAR.