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Water and wind power Brazil’s green growth

Latin America’s largest country is blazing a sustainable energy path, despite some objections

Policymakers in developing countries around the world wrestling with the challenges of meeting surging energy demand, ensuring energy security and keeping a cap on carbon emissions should consider a visit to Brazil.

The country has seen energy consumption nearly double over the past 20 years, yet in attempting to satisfy that demand, Brazil has managed to build one of the world’s least carbon-intensive and self-sufficient energy systems.

The cornerstone of the low-carbon energy system is hydropower. Brazil gets more than 80% of its electricity from a vast, country-wide network of hydropower facilities, which has helped make the country’s power generation sector one of the greenest on planet.

Thanks largely to this reliance on hydropower, renewable energy accounts for 45% of Brazil’s total energy consumption, one of the highest rates in the world. The average share for renewables in the overall energy mix for OECD countries, by contrast, is around 10%.

Brazil continues to expand its hydropower network. Norte Energia, a consortium of state-run companies, is spending $14 billion to build the Belo Monte hydroelectric project, which will be the third largest in the world when it is completed, after the Itaipu dam on the Brazil-Paraguay border and China’s Three Gorges project.

And the country has plenty of untapped hydro potential left. Brazil has only developed a third of its 245 gigawatts of hydro potential, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The government has ambitious plans to build 48 new dams by the end of the decade, 30 of which lie deep in the Amazonian rainforest.

The price of low carbon

Yet, the dam-building boom has sparked a backlash. Environmentalists and indigenous communities recognise that hydropower has helped limit Brazil’s carbon emissions, but they argue that the dams are doing serious damage to the Amazon rainforest and are displacing local communities. The Belo Monte project has been the focus of protests since its inception. “Belo Monte will be one of the largest, most devastating infrastructure projects ever built in the Amazon,” says Amazon Watch, a non-governmental organisation.

The government continues to back new hydroelectric projects in the face of the protests, but there are signs of a shift in strategy. Many new hydro projects are incorporating “run-of-river” designs instead of typical damming designs. These projects avoid the problem of flooding extensive areas, but they are not as efficient power producers as dams. Moreover, they are subject to significant seasonal fluctuations in production depending on river flow.

The government is also stepping up efforts to build out other sources of energy. It has done so through a successful auction system through which, according to the IEA, contracts for more than 500 new generation projects accounting for around 65GW of new power production capacity have been awarded. This system has been particularly successful encouraging new wind generation capacity.

In 2013, wind energy providers were by far the largest winners in the auctioning process, committing to build 4.3GW of new capacity over the next two years. Many of the wind projects have proven to be cost-competitive with natural gas without government subsidies at around $50 per megawatt hour.

The rapid expansion will put pressure on the sector’s developing supply chain. As elsewhere in the world, Brazil’s wind developers have struggled to get connected to the grid as the construction of new windfarms has outpaced new transmission lines.

Here, the IEA says, Brazil has a unique opportunity to marry the burgeoning wind sector with the hydro sector. The Belo Monte project will be a run-of-river hydropower station, and much of the transmission capacity between it and consumers will be underused during the dry season when Belo Monte production is low. But the dry season coincides with the windy season in the northeast of Brazil, presenting an opportunity for the projects to share transmission infrastructure. “Brazil presents a good example of the possible synergies between wind and hydro power,” the IEA said in its report The Power of Transformation.

The continued expansion of hydropower infrastructure and new wind projects, and a government commitment to clean energy, means Brazil is forecast to remain a renewables powerhouse, even as it invests billions of dollars to develop new offshore oil discoveries. The IEA forecasts Brazil’s overall energy mix will change very little over the coming decades, with renewables still accounting for around 45% of total energy by 2035. 

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