Brazil's Energy Crisis Creates Opportunities for Alternatives
February 12, 2013 | Christian Poirier
Is Brazil running out of energy? Recent news reports detail electricity shortages due to depleted reservoirs at the country's hydroelectric facilities, which Brazil depends on for more than 80% of its electricity generation. Drought has left reservoirs dangerously low, and several large cities have already suffered blackouts.
Despite the recent alarming shortages, the Brazilian government denies the need to implement electricity conservation measures – an option deemed "ridiculous" by President Dilma Rousseff – and has instead responded by firing up its network of polluting thermoelectric plants, which spew CO2 emissions while driving up electricity costs to the ire of Brazilian consumers. Meanwhile, the country's powerful Ministry of Mines and Energy has been thrown on the defensive, vehemently dismissing reports that Brazil will lack the energy it needs to power the 2014 World Cup.
This predicament not only exposes the vulnerabilities of the country's current energy matrix; it also highlights the inadequacies of government policies, which have focused on constructing dozens of large dams in the Amazon instead of implementing energy efficiency measures and diversifying energy supplies to include advanced technologies such as solar and wind.
The current energy crisis has ignited a debate in Brazil as the country's energy policy comes under intense public scrutiny. The fact that energy has become such a hot-button topic in the media is creating an unprecedented opportunity to increase transparency and democratic participation in Brazil's energy planning process. It is also adding momentum to the movement – supported by millions of Brazilians – for truly clean, reliable, efficient and affordable energy alternatives.
What's gone wrong with Brazil's so-called "green" energy matrix? Vaunted as offering highly renewable power while sparing the climate, Brazil gets its energy almost entirely from one source: hydroelectricity. When one considers the hidden costs and toxic social and environmental toll of Brazil's Belo Monte dam, the Madeira River complex, or the scores of other large dams the government has planned for the Amazon leading to massive deforestation while discharging major quantities of greenhouse gases, one can hardly consider this hydro-dependent model to be green, much less sustainable.
The perverse reality is that Brazil's quest to dam the last wild rivers and decimate the forests of the Amazon will contribute to climate chaos and further undermine the viability of its hydro-intensive model, which relies on highly variable rainfall patterns that are themselves increasingly affected by climate change. Yet rather than reassessing its energy policies in light of this crisis and taking steps towards truly clean advanced energy alternatives, the government adopts false solutions like activating carbon-intensive thermoelectric plants that are completely out of step with its supposed climate-friendly policies.
There is another way, and it requires a new mindset. While making a shift to a clean, reliable, efficient and affordable energy matrix will involve technical and financial challenges, it's mostly a question of political will. Brazil has enormous potential to be a world leader in wind and solar energy and could spare the Amazon's rivers and communities the disasters of new large dams by implementing comprehensive energy conservation programs.
But first major political hurdles must be overcome. An energy shortage or poor planning has not provoked the current crisis, says Brazilian professor José Eli da Veiga in his recent op-ed, but rather a "lack of democracy and transparency in energy planning," led by "lobbyists, businesspeople, politicians, and middlemen" that maintain an iron grip over the electricity sector to the detriment of consumers and to the environment.
While economic growth stagnated in 2012, Brazil still foresees considerable increases in energy consumption in coming years. However, energy planners have based their projections on shaky foundations: increased demand for electricity is assessed at 52% based on over-estimations of a steady 4.7% growth in GDP over this period. Brazil's recent 10-year energy plan reflects these heady economic expectations, calling for a 40% increase of large dams and 56% increase of small dams by 2021. New hydroelectricity is expected to come almost exclusively from the Amazon's rivers, provoking the kind of socio-environmental catastrophes we now see underway on the Xingu and Madeira.
All the while, Brazilian energy planners call for only meager increases in wind and biomass energy, while astonishingly make no mention of the country's enormous potential for solar power. Projections for energy efficiency programs, like the adoption of smart grid technology or providing incentives for more efficient appliances in Brazilian homes, are skeletal at best with only a 5.9% increase projected over the next 10 years. And a recent scandal exposed that several of the country's newly built wind farms are idle because they have yet to be connected to the national grid! These are the very wind farms that could provide a clean and zero emissions alternative to the thermoelectric plants the government has turned to as its dams have faltered.
Brazil has not run out of energy – it has abundant supplies of solar and wind energy – but its current model is deeply flawed, and its energy planning process reflects an attempt to go in every direction except that which offers truly clean long-term energy solutions. Thanks to the current crisis, the Brazilian public is increasingly aware that viable alternatives are within reach; indeed, it's a matter of political will, not practical limitations.
Recent reports, including one Amazon Watch co-published and launched at a Rio+20 conference in 2012, highlight opportunities and challenges for Brazil to adopt a sustainable electricity model. A growing chorus is calling for a policy shift that not only leverages technological advances but also responds to public and scientific concerns about the increasingly unacceptable socio-environmental impacts provoked by Brazil's current approach. This new vision, under the leadership of Brazilian civil society organizations and the support of an engaged public, could drive an energy revolution in Brazil leading the country to realize its potential – and indeed its responsibility – to be a clean energy leader for the 21st century.