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BRAZIL: Climate Change Will Weaken Renewable Energy Sources

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 3 2008 (IPS) - To Brazil's credit, 45 percent of its energy comes from renewable sources, three times as much as in industrialised countries, but for that very reason it will be more vulnerable to climate change, according to a new study.

Climate conditions forecast for the final three decades of this century will reduce the amount of energy produced by renewable sources all over the country, except in the case of sugar cane, said Roberto Schaeffer, one of the coordinators of the study by the Institute of Engineering Graduate Studies and Research (COPPE) at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

Potential wind energy generation could fall by 60 percent, owing to less frequent high winds in central areas of the country. Production of biodiesel could also be seriously affected because a warmer climate would reduce, or eliminate, production of oil-bearing crops in northeast and west central Brazil.

Hydroelectric power stations, which generate 85 percent of Brazil's electricity, will be adversely affected by scantier and more irregular rainfall, according to the study, which was released on Monday.

Paradoxically, the projected fall in hydroelectric power generation is expected to average one percent if there are high levels of greenhouse gas emissions – scenario A2 as defined by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – but 2.2 percent if emissions are lower, as in scenario B2.

According to Schaeffer, this is a "conservative" forecast, which would be more pessimistic if small dams lose generation capacity when reservoir levels are low, and torrential rains are concentrated in a short period, necessitating opening of the flood gates and loss of stored water to avoid bursting the dams.

Furthermore, the rise in average temperatures will cause electricity consumption in Brazil to rise by eight percent by around 2030, according to extrapolation from climate change forecasts for 2071-2100.

The northeast, already Brazil's poorest region, will be the hardest hit: its semi-arid area is expected to be even drier, it will not be able to produce crops for biodiesel, and the Sao Francisco river basin, its main source of hydroelectricity, could lose 7.7 percent of its generating capacity by the end of the century.

The study on Climate Change and Energy Security in Brazil, carried out by eight researchers working with the Energy Planning Programme at COPPE/UFRJ, is intended to demonstrate that plans for the future cannot be based on present conditions but must take the projected climatic effects into account.

"A greater degree of uncertainty" has been added, which means better data are needed about the multiple factors that affect energy generation, such as the untapped potential of Amazon jungle rivers and the effects of climate on their flow rates, said Alexandre Szklo, another of the study’s lead authors.

Policies to encourage alternative energy sources should continue to be implemented, in spite of climate change, he said. Wind energy may lose 60 percent of its total potential, but "exceptionally favourable" winds will be concentrated on shores and coastal waters, so that "investments will be more feasible" in this sector, Szklo said.

Uncertainty has increased, but the overall picture can be viewed with "a certain equanimity," because reduction of one or two percent in hydroelectric output "is within the sector's margin of risk," said Mauricio Tolmasquín, the head of the Energy Research Corporation (EPE), a planning body at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Hydroelectric power will continue to be the most important component of Brazil's energy matrix. Future technology may be able to compensate for the losses of oil-yielding crops in the northeast, such as castor oil and soybeans, and wind intensity will remain useful along the Brazilian coastline, where population and energy demand is concentrated, Tolmasquín said at the presentation of the study.

Climate change requires "heroic hypotheses" for future alternatives, such as producing biofuels by enzymatic hydrolysis, which is already technically possible but prohibitively expensive, and advances in energy storage processes, said Luis Fernando Legey, coordinator of the COPPE Energy Planning Programme.

"Consumption habits" must also change to save energy, given the growth of the world's population, he said.

In the view of the head of the National Electrical Energy Agency, Jerson Kelman, high tension transmission lines can solve the problems created by climate change in the worst-affected parts of the country.

Brazil has 80,000 kilometres of high tension lines and its power grid is totally interconnected, so energy shortages in one region can be offset by another.

During the 2001 energy crisis, some parts of Brazil suffered blackouts and energy rationing. The south of the country, which had plentiful rainfall, could spare electricity for other regions, but there were not enough power lines then, said Kelman, who was also present at the presentation of the research study.

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