Sustainable electricity generation in Brazil

Jorge Miguel Samek*

Electricity generation in Brazil is one of the cleanest on the planet. Of the total installed capacity — 135,000 megawatts –, thermoelectric power plants only account for 26,000 megawatts. As such, this corresponds to less than 20% of the total.

Hydroelectric power, which is clean and renewable, corresponds to 66% of the Brazilian electricity matrix. And other clean sources, like wind, are growing rapidly. For example, in 2008 wind energy accounted for only 247 MW. In 2015, this number has risen to 5,833 MW, an increase of 2,261%.

Another renewable source growing in popularity over the past seven years is biomass. In total, it grew from 4,193 MW in 2008 to 12,415 MW in 2015, a rise of 196%.

Solar energy, which still involves very high costs in Brazil, is beginning to grow within the Brazilian electricity system. There was no solar-powered generation in 2008. Today, 15 MW has been recorded, which, although still insignificant, shows potential for the future.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy has forecast that Brazil will contract an additional 31,500 MW between 2015 and 2018. Renewable resources will account for 85% of this total.

By 2024, an annual growth of 10% is expected for wind farms, small hydroelectric power plants, biomass thermoelectric power plants and solar-powered plants. Their participation is expected to account for 21%, rising to 27.3% by 2024. And over the coming years, planning will continue with sights set on the goals assumed in September with the United Nations.

Due to its enormity, Brazil’s potential for the production of electric energy has strong regional characteristics. In the Northeast and South, for example, there is great potential for wind farms; biomass has greater potential in the Southeast and Central-West regions, home to sugarcane plantations; and, in the North we have major hydroelectric power potential that could be further explored, such as the Xingu and Madeira River hydroelectric power plants and those from the Tapajós complex.

The new hydroelectric plants to be built in the Amazon represent a huge evolution in relation to respect for the environment and population in general, especially the indigenous peoples. When the Belo Monte project was conceived for the Xingu River, the plan was to have six plants, with a reservoir of almost 20,000 km2. Over the years, the project was adapted to environmental legislation, which has become stricter in Brazil, to the point that the reservoir is no just 3% of what was previously planned.

Now, the reservoir will measure just 478 km2, which half of this formed by the actual Xingu riverbed. There was a drop in potential electricity production due to this reduction, but this is the price of reducing environmental damage as much as possible and end conflicts.

And this is true for the new projects. Plants will only be approved if they present consistent environmental plans, and both the projects and the actual works will be subject to strict monitoring. Enterprises must follow the Equator Principles, made up of requirements for dialogue with the community and respect for people and the environment. Without this, banks will not finance development works. In addition, there is pressure from society itself.

With the new hydroelectric power plants, added to investments in transmission lines, the Brazilian government hopes to attains an even more robust electricity system by 2018, with declining costs and internationally comparable rates.

Itaipu’s reservoir, border of Brazil and Paraguay.

And Itaipu Binacional is part of this process. Even though its project was developed at a time when environmental concerns were practically zero, the plant has always paid attention to the issue. Since 1979, when the plant reservoir was formed, over 44 million trees have been planted on the Brazilian and Paraguayan banks. It is considered the largest reforestation effort by a hydroelectric plant in the world.

Today, its social and environmental program, Cultivando Água Boa (Cultivating Good Water), created in 2003, is a benchmark not only in the Brazilian electricity sector, but also at a global level. The UN named it the best water management practice on the planet.

The Brazilian government will employ Itaipu’s experience to recover the reservoirs in the Central South of the country, considered a major source of water for the Brazilian electricity sector. The Ministry of Mines and Energy has already announced the creation of a specific federal program aimed at the environmental recovery of areas around our hydroelectric power plant reservoirs. Measures include replanting of species, the protection of springs and others that increase the offer of water in reservoirs, for electricity generation, human use and the myriad other uses of water.

* Jorge Miguel Samek is the Brazilian director general of Itaipu Binacional