There is a place, 37km west from Buenos Aires, where it is possible to vividly feel Argentina’s slow-motion struggle towards a better future.
It is barrio La Perla, a new social housing project in Moreno that the NGO Social Housing and Energy Efficiency Forum (FOVISEE) is trying to turn into the country’s first renewable energy neighbourhood through ‘Project 100’.
According to the plan, 100 low-income families out of the almost 900 already living in the barrio will soon be able to stop heating up the water for their showering in big pots, using instead the energy produced by solar panels installed by FOVISEE.
“This neighbourhood has been built with no energy efficiency plan whatsoever. Houses are not even oriented properly. Natural gas does not reach here, so people used to wash themselves using big pots of heated water or electric boilers,” explains 26-year-old Ashley Valle.
Along with the other FOVISEE volunteers, Ashley comes to Moreno every week to assess how the 33 families already provided with the solar panels are doing, and explain to them how to improve the energy efficiency of their houses.
The end goal of Project 100 is not only the installation of solar panels, but also to improve the quality of life in low-income communities, foster care for the environment, and reduce the greenhouse effect by generating energy savings in affordable housing.
As the FOVISEE director María Fernanda Miguel points out, the households already embracing sustainable forms of energy consumption can save up to 50% on their energy bills.
“People in low-income brackets spend at least five or six times more on energy than people living in Palermo. For instance, they have to buy a couple of gas bottles for the kitchen a month, and each one costs $30,” says Fernanda Miguel.
“We are working with people’s habits too. We give them little tips such as putting up mosquito nets, curtains or window screens, drying the clothes outside, and reducing their shower times.”
Drying clothes outside may seem like strange advice to give but could actually make a huge difference in a neighbourhood where, because of the mold they breathe in their humid houses, many children have asthma or lung problems.
The Social Experiment: Building a New Community…
The regular structure of the newly built barrio La Perla – itself a social development project – stretches with its dusty roads from the outskirts of Moreno.
Sporadic trees cast their shadows on the modular houses that constitute the neighbourhood, assembled following the guidelines of the Federal Housing Plan launched by then President Néstor Kirchner in 2004.
With the aim of getting as many poor Argentines as possible above the poverty threshold, Kirchner set aside $3.9bn for the construction of 120,000 social housing units throughout the country.
Of the 1196 houses built in La Perla so far, only 874 are occupied, as the municipality has not finished yet relocating families previously living in shantytowns, villas, and settlements around town to this barrio.
On the 20th March, 98 new families were selected to move here, and more names will be drawn from the waiting list in the following months.
Just a few metres outside the geometrically shaped, prefab neighbourhood, people are still living in houses made with corrugated steel and concrete blocks, presumably built from whatever they could put their hands on. They hope the Federal Housing Plan will one day affect their lives too.
“Families moved here from different parts of Moreno, from different barrios, and also from very different social backgrounds. They did not know each other before, so they had to learn first how to coexist peacefully. It was not easy,” explains Ashley Valley. “A new community was essentially born from scratch.”
The district’s representatives were chosen by the inhabitants in plenary gatherings called with the specific aim of fostering the sense of community amongst the new neighbours.
In 2010, a few months after the keys of the first houses were assigned to the new tenants, FOVISEE and its partners adapted 10 social housing homes of La Perla to include energy efficiency criteria and solar panels for the heating of water.
…Fuelled by Solar Energy
The installation of the panels played a big role in the building of a close relationship between the new neighbours. Each week, the families selected to be part of the scheme gather together to share their experiences with FOVISEE volunteers.
“We give them the solar panels and we teach them how to be energy efficient. The only obligation they have is to keep their consumption monitored, to participate in our studies, and to tell us how they are doing once a week,” Valle explains.
Sisters Griselda and Ofelia Alderete have had solar panels installed on their rooftop. During weekly meetings, they inform FOVISEE about their families’ water consumption habits.
“I only stay under the shower for 25 minutes… but sometimes I like to stay a bit longer,” confesses with innocence one of the two women, while her neighbours share knowing, amused looks.
“Did the water always come out hot? Did the panel work fine?” asks Fernanda Miguel, patiently explaining how to fill out the forms given to monitor the water temperature.
Meetings with the FOVISEE personnel usually happen in the house of one of families participating in the project or, alternatively, in the School Nº 81, inaugurated in March 2010.
“Here it is all a work in progress. The school has a library but there are still no books in it. It has computers, but they are not yet connected to the internet. It reflects a lot on how things go here in Argentina,” reflects Valle.
“One of the companies we work with is basically formed by just a single professor from the UBA. This also reflects the state of renewable industry in Argentina. We are still well behind, compared with Chile and Brazil.”
Thanks to the funding from the German Embassy in Argentina and Edenor, in 2011, FOVISEE was able to provide 23 more houses with solar panels, and the pilot scheme soon evolved into Project 100.
Currently, the partners have been able to cover human resources costs and about 25% of the total project cost.
“The goal for this year is to share the experience with 67 new households, in order to become Argentina’s first sustainable energy efficient neighbourhood,” says María Fernanda Miguel.
The increasing number of people in La Perla who are requesting FOVISEE to be included in Project 100 shows how the NGO managed to create a virtuous circle amongst the neighbourhood.
“People talk to each other, tell each other how their life got better now that they have hot water 24 hours a day and how they are also managing to save money,” comments Valle. “However, we don’t have unlimited resources, and we have to be careful about selecting the families to include in the project. Therefore, we tend to choose those who already have some sort of green conscience.”
Indeed, the hope is that these families will act as an example for the wider community.
Leo Bernardo Javier Suarez, an 18-year-old builder, is one of the inhabitants of the barrio whose life changed thanks to the arrival of FOVISEE and their solar panels.
“My house was one of the first where they installed solar panels. Then, the owner of the company told me that he needed people to work with him, so he asked me if I wanted to join their team. I’m learning a lot.
“Installing solar panels is a highly specialised job. Perhaps one day I will start my own company too, perhaps in Europe, who knows.”