Many of us see solar energy as being close to a messianic saviour, here to save us from our coal consuming, environmentally sinful ways and there is no doubt solar has had more than its fair share of near fatal opposition. However, it is not often we see solar as a solution to, at least a way of mitigating, the failures of other renewables such as pumped storage hydroelectricity. But right now, Brazil is rethinking and renovating its energy production strategy in an attempt to avoid an another imminent power crisis, or should we say the end times.
The Balbina Dam, which is one of two testing grounds for the potential for hybrid electricity production, has been a topic of controversy since its construction in 1989. It was ordered to be built by the then authoritarian, military led Brazilian government, ousted in 1985. Since its creation, critics have argued that it nothing less than a criminal act. The dam currently covers an area of 2400 km squared and is so vast that if you were to stand on the dam wall, the lakes edge would be nearly imperceptible. While dams situated in dry and arid locations are usually met with positivity, the Balbina hydroelectric plant is situated in the Amazon rain forest, the most diverse ecosystem on the planet. The current Energy and Mining Minister Eduardo Braga bluntly stated, "This is one of the biggest environmental crimes that engineering has committed in this country."
It may sound surprising that a past Government decided to flood and effectively destroy a significant portion of what the rest of the world sees as the most coveted environmental reserve on the planet. But, Brazil and South America in general has had a long standing history of capitalizing on its plentiful surroundings.
Even today under a democratically elected parliament even larger hydroelectric plants, located in rich ecosystems like the Amazon, are currently in development. While native Amazonians have attempted to delay projects such as the Belo Monte Dam, it hasn’t been enough to get the Government to reconsider its options. James Cameron, the director of Avatar, a feature film depicting a native peoples struggle to preserve their environment against foreign entities hoping to capitalise on the richness of the lands environmental resources criticised the project, saying the native peoples might turn to violence if all else fails. Unfortunately, beyond public lash back these projects also fly in the face of recent research which suggests that dams significantly impact biodiversity as well as increase the production of pollutants that directly impact the onset of climate change.
Dr Maíra Benchimol, from the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz said “...studies have shown that large dams result in severe losses in fishery revenues, increases in greenhouse gas emissions, and socioeconomic costs to local communities.” Prof Carlos Peres, from UEA's School of Environmental Sciences added, “it is widely known that dams cause massive population losses in terrestrial and tree-dwelling species… however we're only beginning to realize the staggering extent of extinctions in forest areas that remain above water as habitat islands.” To make things clear the Balbina Dam, due to its disproportionate production of methane, is actually more environmentally damaging than most coal plants.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that relying on hydroelectricity means that the levels of energy production is subject the ebb and flow of river currents, as well as the fact that flooding is devastating to rainforest ecosystems, dams are still seen as the best solution to Brazil’s energy needs, in the eyes of the Government. The aforementioned Belo Monte Dam is being touted as the most efficient, cheapest and least environmentally detrimental option available. While the project is significantly more efficient producing up to 11,000 MW in comparison to a 50MW average or a 250MW maximum achieved by the Balbina Dam, it will still flood 500 km squared of Amazonian land displacing nearly as many people as it employs. While the technology has come a long way, it is wilful ignorance and corporate greed that keeps other renewables from emerging and therefore becoming as cost effective as hydropower.
While the Government and the people are proud that Brazil relies on traditional fuels for less than 15% of its total power needs, only recently has the world leader in ‘renewables’ attempted to diversify its energy portfolio beyond the false promises of pumped storage hydroelectricity.
In the 2000s Brazil went through massive drought, which it is still recovering from today. While a lack of water supply was the most immediate issue, because Brazil relies on hydroelectricity for roughly 75% for its power, slowing rivers also meant huge power shortages. This event effectively ravaged the Brazilian economy and led to power rationing. The silver lining was proving that it is short sighted and illogical to rely on environmental consistency to produce consistent energy. This lead the Government to set 2020 energy diversity goals, with an emphasis on wind power, which could effectively produce up to 143 GW of power, or over ten times that of the Belo Monte project. Brazil is aiming to create at least 20 GW by 2020, a lofty goal considering that so far only 5 GW of power is being produced by operational wind farms.
A more effective strategy would be to combine current efforts with a scheme promoting large scale solar, in an attempt to capitalise on the huge potential for solar energy which at a total of 17MW makes up 0.01% of Brazil’s energy portfolio. What is most surprising about this statistic is that Brazil actually has one of the highest incidences for solar in world at 4.25 to 6.5 sun hours per day. The Balbina Pilot project is hoping to do exactly that by converting the inefficient hydropower plant into a vast solar farm.
Initially, the project will produce 5MW of electricity which will feed into the grid and provide electricity for up to 9000 homes. The name may imply that this is a small project, the truth is anything but. The panels will cover an area of roughly 50,000 square meters initially, however plans are already in place so that engineers are able to increase power output to 300MW. This will allow the solar ‘farm’ to produce enough power for 540,000 local homes and overtake the dams output six times over.
Orestes Goncalves, president of Sunlution, the company leading the effort stated, “We’re going to transform the hydroelectric power generators that have limitations due to the weather, into unlimited power producers because they will also use solar energy.” Essentially, the greatest benefit to Brazil as an economy is being able to have a consistent and reliable source of power. And, by building on top of an existing power plant, Brazil can effectively increase its energy production at no further environmental expense while attempting to undo the mistakes of the past.
Initially, it seemed that a great flood would solve the issue of Brazil’s Energy crisis, but it proved to be inefficient and what some may argue more damaging to the environment than coal itself, now Solar, powered by light has come to rescue Brazil from its previous mistakes and set brazil on the right path while averting any future crises. It seems solars advance as the world’s leading solution to our growing energy needs is of biblical proportions.