Brazil: hydropower, a solution to the country development issues?

dam, electricity consumption, energy independence, hydroelectricity

Photo © OliBac

In early 2012, thanks to social networks, people around the world could witness the controversy ignited by the construction of the Belo Monte dam, in the state of Para in Brazil. The project will eventually lead to displacing over 25,000 indigenous inhabitants and will affect the ecosystem of the “Big Loop” of the Xingu River where the dam is to be located.  However, it is questionable whether Brazil, the industry leader of Latin America and more than just an emerging country, could go without its dams and the power windfall they represent.

In 2011 Brazil’s GDP reached 2,150 billion dollars, thereby outstripping the UK. Brazil is speeding up its industrialization and development (7.5% growth in 2010), which directly impacts its electricity needs. The figures speak for themselves: in 2000, Brazil produced barely 349 billion kwh, compared to 489 in 2011, which represents a 40% rise in only eleven years. This sharp increase enabled the average Brazilian to consume 2237 Kw in 2010, following the movement of a quickly evolving society (30.8% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2005, only 21.4% as early as 2009).

The richer Brazilians get, the more power they use. Besides, the fast-growing Brazilian industry is the first source of electricity consumption in the country, as it accounts for 46.7% of the overall consumption, whereas households account for 22.1%. Brazil set energy independence as a political goal and only imports 2% of the power it consumes, hence the necessity of efficient solutions so as to enable production to match the growing demand.

Hydropower has always been a major production source. There are over 2,000 dams in Brazil, among which at least 24 achieve a 500 Mw production. The hydropower assets represent over 80% of the overall energy consumption. With a territory rich in streams, Brazil has the highest hydropower potential in the world, reaching an estimated 255 million Kw. Its current production is only 77 million. Moreover, hydropower addresses environmental concerns: it is carbon-free and, above all, it is a sustainable energy, although it inevitably impacts local ecosystems where dams are built. It is also relatively cheap thanks to its very low operating costs and its satisfactory productivity. Whereas a windmill can achieve 1 to 3 Mw, hydropower plants in Brazil can yield 500 to 1000 Mw, thanks to the favourable conditions the country is blessed with. It is hardly surprising that building projects such as the Itaipu dam (in nearby Paraguay) or the Belo Monte dam have been, or are about to be, launched.

Despite its later arrival on the market, the Belo Monte dam will remain the “little brother” of the Itaipu dam. It is the second biggest hydropower plant in the world, after the Three Gorges Dam in China. For that matter, it was declared one of the seven wonders of the modern world by the American Society of Civil Engineers, next to the Channel Tunnel and the Golden Gate Bridge, among others. However, given that the “Ita” plant belongs to Paraguay and Brazil alike and that both countries share the 14,000 Mw production, the Belo Monte dam will provide more Brazilians with power (around 23 million), with an expected 11,000 Mw annual production.

Nevertheless, Brazil knows that it should not necessarily put all its eggs in the hydropower basket, since its poses a certain number of risks. For instance, the 2001 drought led to a rationing of electricity since dams didn’t have enough water to function. In 2009 for instance, 50 million Brazilians suffered a two-day blackout after a dam failed. Since then the country has endeavoured to vary its production sources. The Belo Monte will actually be built, but the question remains open whether it will suffice or not to avoid such misfortunes against a backdrop of fast-growing electricity needs.

Photo © OliBac

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