A rare event happened yesterday. After years of the Brazil government avoiding calls by civil society and environmental organizations to debate the highly controversial and unpopular Belo Monte hydropower project, they finally gave in. For the first time as long as anyone can remember, a government representative actually come on stage to debate WHY the government continues to move forward, against the decision of 12 lower courts in Brazil and the protestations of 1.5 million Brazillians.
The event was held at Rio de Janeiro's planetarium and was attended by some of the country's most important nonprofit and indigenous leaders, academics, journalists along with a major Brazillian TV celebrity, Sergio Marone, who recently visited the remote Xingu region of Brazil to witness first hand the devastation that has taken place as a result of the dam.
The government represetative from the Ministry of Energy & Mines, Altino Ventura Filho, not suprpisingly had some nicely packaged talking points, which were promptly (yet respectfully) ripped to shreds by the NGO's and academic experts on the panel:
- Brazil is rapidly growing at 7% and needs to add 580,000 MW of capacity in 10 years to keep up
- Brazil's abundant water resources make it a "clean" & "cheap" way to generate 350,000 MW of power
- In addition Brazil wants to have an energy mix of 50% hydro, 15% biomass, 15% wind in 10 years
- Belo Monte dam is a "relatively small project for Brazil" and will only have a 500 km footprint
- If we don't build the power plants, Brazillians will never be lifted out of poverty
First, as many nations (developing and developed) have proven, economic growth and energy demand do not have to be direcly correlated. Brazil assumes a 1:1 correlation, but California for example was able to double its GDP with a 0% increase in energy demand, primarily through rigorous energy efficiency policies. By some estimates, Brazil's rapid growth would only require half (or less) of the demand projected by the government, thereby removing the urgent need for new hydropower plants. Investing in improving the energy grid (which wastes 20% of the nation's generated energy) is a far better investment and would create more jobs.
Second, hydropower is not "green" unless you consider displacing 20,000 indigenous families in the span of a few months and permanently altering the habitat of one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth. The government says it will only result in the deforestation of 500km, when research has shown that large hydro projects result in massive "indirect deforestation." Belo Monte dam is projected to destroy 5000 km of rainforest, 10x the amount projected by the government.
Third, Yes brazil does have a LOT of water that it could harness for power. But the nation is also one of the wealthiest in terms of solar and wind access, ranking #1 in the world for renewable energy potential. According to the director of Brazil's wind energy association, Christine Lins, Brazil has some of the best quality winds in the world resulting in turbine efficiencies of 45%. Foreign companies are desperate to invest in the country's nascent wind industry (wind is now only 1% of the total mix), and with enormous solar capacity (enough to produce 1000x current energy demand) the nation could solarize its major urban centers while generating thousands of new jobs.
After the panel, Paul Horsman of the TckTckTck campaign summed it up this way:
We know we have the answers. The problem is that the answers reverse the decisions of governments and power companies. It’s empowering if people make their own energy, so the government is afraid to loose power, in both the literal and figurative sense.
With $1 trillion in projected investments in solar power by 2020, does Brazil want to keep up or does it want to fall behind? Does Brazil want to do 20,000 MW by 2020 like India & China? What would it cost the people? The answer is less than a 0.7% electricity rate increase compared to large dams which would result in a 5% increase.
With Rio+20 about to start, one thing is clear... Brazil is at a major crossroads and the whole world is watching. One hopes the government starts making better decisions about its energy future.