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BRAZIL: Thirst for Energy Drives Construction of More Dams in Amazon

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 8 2010 (IPS) - Electricity consumption in Brazil will rise by 5.9 percent a year until 2019, and hydroelectric plants will continue to be the main source of power because they generate it at a lower cost, the government announced.

Two-thirds of the country’s hydroelectric potential lies in the Amazon jungle region, and protests by environmentalists, indigenous communities and social movements against large dams there are expected to continue, like those against the Belo Monte power station on the Xingú river in the northern Brazilian state of Pará.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy’s (MME) ten-year plan to 2019, which was unveiled for public debate last month, envisages building six hydroelectric stations in the basin of the Tapajós river alone, which crosses Mato Grosso and the adjacent northern state of Pará.

The challenge for Brazil is “to maintain the renewable portion of its energy mix” in order to live up to the commitment it made at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in December 2009 in Copenhagen. That means prioritising hydroelectricity, Minister of Mines and Energy Marcio Zimmermann told foreign journalists at a press conference Monday in Rio de Janeiro.

Zimmermann said the only alternative to hydroelectric power, a renewable source of energy, was to increase thermoelectric power generation which uses non-renewable fossil fuels and emits greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

In response to calls by environmentalists for more investment in alternative energy sources, the minister countered with cost comparisons. The consortium building the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant has offered a price of 77.97 reals (42 dollars) per megawatt-hour, while wind energy cost 148 reals (80 dollars) per megawatt-hour at the most recent auction last year, he said.

Although he acknowledged that the cost of wind energy has fallen by nearly one-half in the last six years, Zimmermann said hydroelectric power would continue to be cheaper for a long time yet. Only in countries which have exhausted the potential of their rivers, as in Europe, do hydroelectricity costs increase, he said.

The Brazilian energy plan proposes a four-fold increase in wind power over the next 10 years, but the share of wind energy in the mix will still be less than four percent of the total. Energy derived from biomass, meanwhile, will remain at around five percent.

Brazil will increase its total installed capacity for electricity generation from the present figure of 112 megawatts to 167 megawatts by 2019, according to MME projections. The contribution of hydroelectric power is planned to increase from the current 83 megawatts to 117 megawatts, requiring new dams that will flood a total area of hundreds of square kilometres.

The ministry’s projections are based on economic growth forecasts of 5.1 percent a year on average, a rate that will be exceeded this year, according to analysts.

The rise in energy consumption in Brazil has always outstripped economic growth, largely because of population increase: more than two million people a year become new consumers and raise demand for electricity.

This emerging country of 193 million people has a much lower level of energy consumption per person than that of the industrialised world.

The rise in energy demand and the shock of the big black-out in 2001, when energy rationing had to be enforced for several months, are key factors driving the country’s big energy projects. As well as hydroelectric plants, the ten-year plan includes construction of a third nuclear power station and several new thermoelectric plants fuelled by coal, oil and natural gas.

Brazil’s thirst for energy is also pushing it to make bilateral agreements with neighbouring countries.

The government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva hopes to harness the power of rivers in Peru, and in Guyana where MME is banking on securing the lion’s share of 14,000 megawatts, to be produced jointly by the two countries.

Two hydropower plants shared by Argentina and Brazil on a border river, the Uruguay river, with a combined capacity of 2.1 megawatts, are also part of Brasilia’s plans.

Minister Zimmermann rejected suggestions that Brazil’s energy strategy is in any way “imperialist.” Buying and selling energy between states is normal practice the world over, and Brazil’s vision is one of “energy integration” rather than political domination, he said.

The goal, he said, is to “optimise” electricity distribution and use. The exchange agreement with Argentina is an example of mutual interest, he added, as demand in Argentina is greatest in winter when heating is needed, while consumption in Brazil is highest in summer, when air conditioning is used.

Peru itself requested Brazil’s cooperation for studying the energy potential of its rivers and for building hydropower stations, since Brazilian companies have developed the best technology in the field, the minister said.

Zimmermann denied press reports that the governments of the two countries were about to sign an agreement for building five new hydropower plants in the Peruvian Amazon region, with nearly all the electricity produced going to Brazil.

For the time being, “these are only studies,” the minister responded to a question from IPS.

But a Brazilian company, Odebrecht, has already won the concession for building a combined dam, hydroelectric station and irrigation project at Olmos, in northwestern Peru.

Energy development in rivers in the Amazon rainforest has triggered a huge backlash in Brazil, with a united front made up of indigenous people, the Movement of People Affected by Dams — which claims to represent one million people displaced from their land — several environmental organisations and scientists.

The Belo Monte hydropower station, now the target of the largest protests, involves building a dam that will flood 516 square kilometres. The original plan in the 1980s proposed flooding 1,250 square kilometres.

Thus “the impact has been greatly reduced,” and plans to build four more hydropower complexes on the same river, the Xingú — one of them calling for flooding of 6,000 square kilometres of forest — have been shelved, said Zimmermann in defence of the project.

But environmentalists and biologists who have studied the river ecology disagree with the reassuring statements from the minister and other energy authorities. They say there will be a direct impact on two indigenous territories that are home to 200 people.

Diversion of part of the river through two channels to fuel the turbine generators will dry out a curve of the river called Volta Grande, where the indigenous people and thousands of small farmers live. The result will be a massive die-off of fish and river turtles, staple foods for the riverbank communities, biologists say.

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