I have recently come back from a visit to Paqueta, an island in the bay of Rio de Janeiro. It is a stunningly beautiful place: the Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer can be seen over the water. Unlike Rio itself, Paqueta is safe to walk in alone, even for gringo tourists. It would be a great place for a beach holiday – except that the water in Rio bay is too filthy to swim in.
So instead of lying on the beach, we went for walks. Not long walks – a full circuit of the island would only take a couple of hours. But fascinating walks. The trees and flowers are wonderful. The sea is visible at the end of most streets. This is Brazil, so the island has two catholic churches and two football grounds. For me, though, the most interesting feature was that most of the energy comes from renewables. (OK, I accept that I really should get a life…)
That´s most of the energy, not just most of the electricity. On Paqueta, not much other energy is used. The local government decided many decades ago to keep most motor vehicles off the island, to make Paqueta different from the rest of Brazil. So there is a police car, an ambulance, a rubbish van, a few delivery vehicles bringing produce from Rio, and a tractor pulling a carriage – Paqueta´s train. Electric bikes and scooters are allowed, and are quite common. Electric rickshaws and a couple of horse-drawn carriages provide taxi services. A few Paquetans cycle. But most of them walk.
The ferries to and from Rio are an essential part of the island´s society and economy, so should be included in Paqueta´s carbon footprint. The ferries do use oil, but in Brazil petrol is mixed with biofuel. And Brazilian biofuel is good biofuel: ethanol from sugar cane rather than from corn. Producing this does not require food to be grown elsewhere and so does not drive deforestation (see The Economist: Lean, green and not mean). Brazilians refer to sugar cane ethanol as `alcohol´. So the trip from Paqueta to Rio is not just a ferry journey: it´s a booze cruise.
Paqueta imports all its electricity from mainland Brazil, and about 70% of Brazil´s installed generation capacity is hydro. Hydro is renewable. But its construction was often not good for the climate. Many trees were felled to make room for reservoirs. Even worse for the climate, many trees were simply left to rot underwater, producing large quantities of the powerful greenhouse gás methane. New reservoirs also forced many people to abandon their home. The fact that an energy source is renewable does not mean that it is desirable. However, existing hydro facilities have already done their damage; there is no point in shutting them down.
Most properties on Paqueta do not have any form of heating. They don´t need it: winter temperatures only drop to about 20 degrees centigrade. A few properties have air conditioning; most do not. There´s no gas grid. Some people buy canisters of gas for cooking; others use electricity.
Paqueta could quite easily become totally reliant on renewable energy. The few vehicles could all run on electricity or biogas. So could the ferries – an electric ferry is being built and tested in Norway (see ship technology.com: Norled ZeroCat Electric Powered Ferry, Norway) Gas stoves could be replaced by electric ones.
Why should Paqueta do this? It´s a small island, with only about 4,500 official residents (and thousands more in favelas). It would not do much to protect the global climate for the inhabitants of one small island to give up fossil fuels. But there are three reasons why Paqueta should go all out for renewable energy.
First, it would not be difficult or expensive. The cost of solar power has fallen dramatically in recent years. Rio gets lots of strong sunlight, most days of the year. Granted, the sun does not shine at night, even in Brazil. Paqueta would have to import electricity at night. But it could export more during the day. So the island would make money.
The island should also build biogas facilities. Bioenergy can generate electricity when the sun is not shining. There isn´t much farmland or waste wood on Paqueta. But there are people, so there is sewage. This should be put into an Anaerobic Digestion plant, to produce renewable gas, which could then be used to generate electricity. The small amount of solid matter remaining can be used as fertiliser; it should not be thrown into the sea.
Second, Paqueta should go completely renewable to blaze a trail for the rest of Rio and the rest of Brazil. Rio mayor Eduardo Paes, the current chair of the C40 cities climate leadership group (see C40Cities: A Strong Advocate for Cities), is a strong supporter of renewables. So is Brazilian president Dilma Rouseff. Sensible national policies are in place. Demonstrating clean energy leadership would be excellent for the image of Paqueta.
This links to the third reason: a move to renewables would help Paqueta re-establish itself as a tourist resort, partly through publicity but mainly by demonstrating one way to clean up the water in Rio bay. A seaside resort needs sea that tourists can swim in. Much of the pollution in Rio bay is chemical, from the numerous factories that surround it. Nothing that Paqueta can do about this – there are no factories there. But as well as the chemicals, there is a lot of untreated sewage. Anaerobic Digestion is an effective way to get ´power from poo´ and to put an end to the dumping of sewage into the sea. Sewage is seen as a problem, but should also be regarded as a resource.