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AUGUSTIN WOELZ

Brazil,

In Brazil, as in many other parts of the world, high and inefficient electricity consumption are directly linked to the construction of large hydroelectric dams, waste of water, various types of air pollution, and excess spending by poor populations. Augustin has created the Low Cost Solar Heater (Aquecedor Solar de Baixo Custo, or ASBC), a do-it-yourself system for domestic hot water heating. But just as important, he has developed a methodology for dissemination of this accessible technology at the community level through youth and their families.

This profile below was prepared when Augustin Woelz was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.

INTRODUCTION

In Brazil, as in many other parts of the world, high and inefficient electricity consumption are directly linked to the construction of large hydroelectric dams, waste of water, various types of air pollution, and excess spending by poor populations. Augustin has created the Low Cost Solar Heater (Aquecedor Solar de Baixo Custo, or ASBC), a do-it-yourself system for domestic hot water heating. But just as important, he has developed a methodology for dissemination of this accessible technology at the community level through youth and their families.




THE NEW IDEA

Augustin Woelz believes that all families should have access to electricity and hot water, and so he has invented a low-cost solar heating unit that can be used and afforded by even the poorest Brazilian families. In addition, he has created a new distribution system for his renewable energy technologies which involves Brazil’s teachers and the students they reach.

Augustin taps into young people’s interest in science-based projects. To reach large numbers of youth, he takes advantage of teachers’ accessibility, providing them with the tools they need to integrate solar technology construction into their coursework. The crux of the process is a workshop which prepares teachers to train students and colleagues alike in the construction methods. They receive a simple manual to share with their students—also available on the organization’s open-source Web site—as well as a free sample kit to get started. With only this do-it-yourself kit, households are capable of substantially reducing their electricity costs while simultaneously reducing the social and environmental costs of excess electricity consumption.

Augustin’s distribution system turns the traditional technology paradigm up side down. It empowers families to build their own energy production systems in a process led by youth—typically voiceless members of society. Augustin knows that his work not only brings economic benefits to families, but also helps develop new leadership roles for young people in society.




THE PROBLEM

Brazil’s electricity consumption patterns are problematic on several levels. Households use high-grade, inefficient electricity for simple heating functions. The electricity used in shower heads alone accounts for 8 percent of the country’s total production. This consumption requires the installation of generating stations and distribution grids corresponding to 35 to 45 percent of the Itaipú hydroelectric station (the world’s largest) and to US$9 billion in new infrastructure along with major environmental damage.

High costs aren’t relegated to infrastructure; expenses trickle down to consumers and represent a burden for Brazilian families. For the poorest, these costs become prohibitive. Many opt not to pay at all and instead connect illegally to distribution lines. Because electric shower heads and other appliances require high current, the undersized wiring used frequently results in fires, especially in the most crowded favelas.

Alternative and renewable energy sources do not currently provide a viable substitute. Costs remain high due in part to design inefficiencies. Today’s solar panels were developed in the north where winters are cold, but make little sense in Brazil, the country with the world’s greatest year-round solar radiation. But beyond this, distribution channels for appropriate technology are notoriously weak. Most Brazilians are not aware that these technologies exist and those who are do not have incentives or easy access to adopt them.




THE STRATEGY

Augustin has not only developed a breakthrough energy system but he is innovating ways of distributing it to those who need it most. Augustin’s first strategy was to develop solar heating equipment at a cost of 10 percent of commercially available equipment. This equipment is then transformed into a kit with an accessible manual. Augustin created a Web site presenting and explaining all the methodology, with an “open source” approach, which served to disseminate the work and also as a tool for communication between all the actors involved in the process: youth, teachers, universities, citizen sector organizations, socio-environmental networks and contractors. This Web site, which contains all the manuals for using and producing the equipment, receives around 7,000 visits per month, helping social organizations, government agencies and universities develop kits and apply his methodology.

Augustin sees youth as his best tool for reaching low-income populations desperate for affordable electricity. He begins in Brazil’s public schools, where youth are excited by the idea of generating hot water from a kit they themselves assemble, but continues in the communities and homes, where they act as disseminators of the idea. The solar kits are delivered to physics and natural science teachers who begin using them in their classes. Each kit costs R$40.00. Augustin calculates that each teacher reaches an average of 200 students, who in turn reach their families and communities. In 2005, 50 kits were distributed each month to public schools in São Paulo. In addition, Sociedade do Sol offered introductory courses, training in assembly and dismantling, and presentation of exercises that can be used in the classroom. The idea in the short term is to establish partnerships with companies that finance the cost of producing these kits and increase the distribution and training in schools.

To broaden his reach Augustin also works outside the public school system. At private schools, teachers train students who then work with low-income communities to both implement the technology and to understand the environmental and economic ramifications. The Center for Studies and Research in Education, Sociedade do Sol are training 60 youth at risk, who are being attended by the Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action (CENPEC), one of the largest organizations in São Paulo working with youth.

As Augustin’s work spreads, he continues experimenting with new avenues for getting his technology to those who need it most. He is currently pursuing a relationship with contractors and government agencies involved in low-income housing projects.

Augustin recognizes that quality control will be one of his main challenges moving forward. To address this concern, he has created a volunteer corps of qualified engineers and technical professions to monitor the implementation and functionality of his technology. Currently, Sociedade do Sol has 38 voluntary monitors in the southeastern and southern regions of Brazil. Each week, they send technical reports and suggestions from communities that allow Augustin to pinpoint problems in implementation and improve his design and training program. At the same time, they are empowered to answer questions for the teachers, students, and families in their districts that are currently working with the technology. All of this information is then fed to RENOVE (National Network of Civil Society Organizations for Renewable Energies), led by Fellow Fábio Rosa, who lobbies in Brasília to bring about laws supporting installation of renewable energy systems.

Augustin envisions a world where citizens of all countries have access to his technology and will have the means to implement it in their homes and communities. On his current trajectory, he is prioritizing the establishment of new partnerships, increasing his staff, and dedicating more time to effective dissemination within Brazil and abroad. He has also begun thinking about exchange projects in other countries of the Southern Hemisphere (particularly in Africa) that, much like Brazil, use wood for heating and are turning large forested areas into desert. This is a first step in bringing his technology global.




THE PERSON

Augustin was born to Brazilian parents in Germany and went on to study at a German school in Brazil. From an early age he showed an interest in and talent for studying science. Like many boys in his generation, Augustin studied to enter his father’s profession, electrical engineering. In 1964, when he left university, Augustin started working with an ultra light aircraft (gyrocopter) constructed with an imported “do it yourself” technology to be assembled by the user. He quickly developed a love of aviation and teaching, and went on to become a representative of the U.S. based manufacturer of this product and even set up an aviation field to train new owners.

At his father’s urging, Augustin joined the family business producing and selling antennas in the mid 1970s. At Amplimatic, he was responsible for training staff and providing support services to users. Augustin thrived in the training portion of his job but did not enjoy the business aspects. While at Amplimatic, he succeeded in creating the first direct service model for attending to customer needs, and also pushed the company to donate a portion of its profits for local development. In 1987 Augustin realized he had foregone his lifelong passion for improving social and environmental conditions and began to rethink his life. He left the company four years later and established “SunPower” to develop and produce solar heaters.

In 1992, he was invited to represent the state of São Paulo by the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service in Eco-92. He designed a low-cost solar heater that could save electricity and be used by every Brazilian family. He developed a prototype of a plastic heater that attracted considerable interest from participants, but Augustin realized it would be impossible to produce; though it could reduce the cost from R$3000 to R$200. This was still a dream, and Augustin devoted himself to research and development of the product, to make it economically viable. In the 10 years it took to develop this product, he worked on some consulting projects to support himself.

In 1998, he participated in the incubation of a company by the Incubation Center for Technological Companies (CIETEC) of the University of São Paulo which provided him with tranquility, mental balance, security, and a good relationship with other companies. Over time, Augustin became aware that the work he was doing had more to do with the social sector than with the for profit. In 2001, he turned his company into the citizen organization Sociedade do Sol.




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