Amazon dams hold promise of clean energy for Brazil

Opponents say the environmental and social costs of flooding parts of the Amazon outweigh the energy benefits, but the $10 billion Belo Monte project and other Amazon dams hold the promise of clean energy.

By , Correspondent

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    Film director James Cameron joined a Brazilian indigenous group’s protest April 12 of the Belo Monte Dam, which would be the world’s third-largest. Proponents say that it's a clean power source – and in this age of climate change, one that should be tapped.
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It is slated to be the world's third-biggest dam. Local authorities tried to halt it in court. But Brazil is pushing ahead with the Belo Monte Amazon dam – and has big plans for hydroelectric power elsewhere in the Amazon. Its argument for the controversial move? That it's a clean power source – and in this age of climate change, one that should be tapped.

"In this post-Copenhagen world, in which we have emissions of CO2 causing global warming, 80 to 90 percent of Brazil's energy comes from renewable sources," says Brazil's energy minister, Marcio Zimmerman, in a telephone interview.

Brazil's economy is growing at about 5 percent a year, and it needs to add energy capacity to keep up the pace of job growth and supply the needs of a growing middle class.

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With hundreds of rivers still untouched, only one-third of the possible hydroelectric power is being tapped. The latest plan identifies 11 Amazonian basins in which to build dams. The dams will provide cheap, renewable energy – and controversy.

"I think asking Brazil not to use hydroelectric power would be like asking Saudi Arabia not to use oil," says Luiz Pinguelli, the former head of Eletrobras and now director of Coppe-UFRJ, an energy studies center. "The government didn't handle the Belo Monte affair well, but Brazil should still build more dams. How they go about it is another story."

The Belo Monte affair brought the Amazon's hydroelectric potential to the world's attention. State officials have claimed the 11,000-megawatt project will damage the environment. "Avatar" director James Cameron weighed in, saying Brazil is headed toward an "ecological disaster," and joined some 14 indigenous groups, along with actress Sigourney Weaver, to protest the dam. Opponents say the environmental and social costs of flooding parts of the Amazon outweigh the energy benefits. Some believe the $10 billion project is economically shaky.

Brazil can gain more by modernizing its inefficient transmission and distribution system, they argue, and by slashing power waste.

"Studies have shown that Brazil has huge potential for savings by investing in energy efficiency measures, and that is cheaper and faster to come online than a big dam project like Belo Monte," says Aviva Imhof, campaigns director for California-based International Rivers. "If Brazil aggressively invested in energy efficiency, they could save the equivalent of 14 Belo Montes and save $20 billion in the process."

Government officials agree that energy efficiency could be improved, but say it won't be enough. As Brazil's middle class grows, so will consumption. Brazilians now only use about 2,300 kilowatt-hours per person, per year, says Zimmerman, the energy minister. In South Africa, the figure is 5,000, and in the US it is 14,000.

The government plans to boost capacity with hydroelectric dams, but is worried about droughts. By 2017 the percentage of total energy from dam-powered plants will fall from 84.5 to 76 percent, according to the government's energy research body.

Plants run on fossil fuels will increase to 17.8 percent from 13.3 percent, and biomass and wind power will triple to 2.7 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively. Nuclear power should remain stable at around 2 percent of the mix, Zimmerman says.

Still, the government defends hydro as the cheapest option and says Brazil remains "greener" than most developed nations. Zimmerman notes that "in the [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] nations, only 6 to 7 percent of the [electricity grid] comes from renewable sources, and about 10 or 20 percent of energy comes from renewable sources. We are trying to maintain the level of renewable energy [by building dams]."

He says economic growth and environmental protection don't have to clash: "At the moment dams are the best option, but there needs to be more negotiation between the government and local groups. It can't be forced, like Belo Monte was."

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