The Future of Health

The Future of Health

Intense controversy over the use of major dams in the Brazilian Amazon is forcing the government to look to alternative renewables to meet growing demand for power

clock • 4 min read

Tucked away on the north-eastern edge of Brazil is Rio Grande do Norte, a kitesurfing hotspot. Adrenaline junkies travel from around the world to zip along the miles of golden beaches, propelled by the steady, consistent winds that blow along the foreshore all year round.

Many of the beach villages along the coastline are now dotted with 'pousadas', where the kitesurfers spend the evenings drinking beer in beachside bars and listening to the sound of the waves crash against the sand.

But the region's bountiful natural resources means a new type of industry is starting to spring up along this coastal hideaway. An industry which involves fewer flip flops and more hard hats.

Lured by the falling cost of turbines and the steady winds from the North Atlantic, a number of shiny new wind farms have sprung up in recent years.

Just outside the tiny beachside town of São Miguel do Gostoso is the São Benedito Wind Farm, an 115MW project from Brazilian green energy developer CPFL that opened last year. The 80-metre turbines rise up from the sun-baked plains that lie just a few kilometres behind the sand dunes, providing a stark contrast to the crude bungalows, willow fences, and dirt roads that charactierise the nearby villages.

Incisive MediaSão Benedito Wind Farm | Credit: Incisive Media

Brazil only recently woke up to its wind potential. For decades the country has relied on massive hydroelectric dams for three-quarters of its electricity supplies, with around 160 dams in operation across the country. It means for a country of its size Brazil's energy-related emissions are comparatively low, with the majority of its greenhouse gas emissions instead caused by deforestation.

We have to protect the Amazonic region -  Eduardo Azevedo, Ministry of Mines and Energy

 But Brazil's historic reliance on hydropower led it to becoming complacent when it comes to the development of other renewable energy technologies. While other developing nations leapt on the solar and wind energy bandwagon as soon as prices started to drop in the mid-2000s, Brazil instead pressed ahead with a programme of new hydroelectric dams to meet growing demand for power.

However, that programme has now been forced to a halt, as a combination of fierce droughts and growing public opposition has combined to make large dam development politically challenging. One of the latest mega dams to open in Brazil is the Belo Monte dam in the Amazonian state of Pará. Still under construction, the first turbines opened in December 2016 and when finished next year it is set to be the third largest dam in the world, with a capacity of over 11GW.

But its power comes at a cost. The project, which boasts a price tag of around $18bn, has led to the forced relocation of 30,000 local peoples from the Xingu River in the Amazonian and the flooding of large swathes of land, much of it biodiversity hotspots.

Credit International RiversProtestors demonstrate against the Belo Monte dam | Credit: International Rivers

The tragic failure of Fundao dam in the state of Minas Gerais in November 2015, when a tailings dam operated by the Brazilian mining company Samarco collapsed drowning 19 people in a tidal wave of mining waste and leaving hundreds more homeless, has provided further ammunition for anti-dam activists.

Meanwhile changing weather patterns have led to droughts in key power generating areas, rendering hydropower less reliable and more expensive.

Now energy experts across Brazil acknowledge the era of the super dam might be coming to an end. "We have to protect the Amazonic region," acknowledges Eduardo Azevedo, secretary of planning and energy development at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, at a meeting with BusinessGreen and other media outlets last month.

Andre Pepitone, director of Brazilian electricity regulatory agency ANEEL, agrees, pointing out that most of the country's remaining hydro resources are in the Amazonian region and therefore cannot be developed.

"We have to think about some innovation," he says, citing the development of more small hydro and wind and solar projects. Such innovation in clean energy will be necessary to stop the generation gap being filled by fossil fuels. In 2011, when hydropower generation peaked in Brazil at 428TWh, gas generation was at 25TWh and coal 12TWh. By 2014, the latest year generation data was available for, gas generation had climbed to 81TWh and coal to 35TWh.

But the strength of Brazil's wind resources make turbines an attractive alternative to fossil fuels. According to Sandro Yamamoto, technical director of Abeeolica, the country's wind industry trade body, if two identical wind projects were built in north-east Brazil and China, the Brazilian project would generate double the amount of clean electricity.

It is this lure of high yields, as well as the global drop in price of onshore wind technologies, that has fuelled the industry's expansion in Brazil in recent years. Since the first government energy auction for wind power in 2009, 13GW of capacity has been installed, with almost 11GW of that in the north east. That now puts Brazil at eighth in the world for installed wind capacity. By 2023, Abeelica expects 17.88GW of wind power to be operational.


Madeleine Cuff's trip to Brazil was paid for by Apex-Brasil, the Brazilian trade and investment agency.

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