By Ana Karine Pereira*
The Belo Monte dam will be constructed in the Xingu River basin in the state of Pará.The Xingu is one of the Amazon’s two principal tributaries and includes 14% of Brazil’s hydroelectric potential. The dam will be placed on the Big Bend of the Xingu, where there is a 96 meter fall in water level. Belo Monte will be located close to Altamira and the Transamazon highway, in an area characterized by native forest, fishing, and agriculture.
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa Delgado has declared a state of electrical emergency nationwide for the next 60 days ushering in a potentially new era where the sustainability of hydroelectric power could be thrown into doubt.
The release of the decree, which aims to guarantee the continuity and supply of electricity, comes after the government had little choice but to announce a nationwide energy rationing programme.
The energy crisis follows a sustained drought that has seen a significant decrease in the volume of water flowing into the country’s most important dam at the Paute plant, which supplies 35 percent of the nation’s electricity.
The BBC World correspondent, Paúl Mena Erazo, reports that Correa blames the impacts of climate change and his predecessors for shoddy management and pitifully low sums of investment.
During a television appearance Correa went on the defensive by labeling Ecuador a ´victim of climate change´ and describing at length the government’s ongoing construction of 6 new hydroelectric plants to plug the energy deficit, which will come online within 5 years.
In the meantime, however, Ecuador has bought 700,000 barrels of diesel from Colombia and Venezuela to ensure a supply of energy to their thermoelectric plants to feed the grid.
Energy efficiency measures are also being encouraged. Mobile phone owners, for example, are receiving text messages from the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy, asking consumers not to use irons or washing machines at peak times.
The short and long term consequences of this energy crisis will not be clear for the time being. However, with hydropower off the menu, it would be appear that resorting to thermoelectric plants and generators using diesel will result in an increase in carbon emissions and pollution.
A decrease in the use of public transport could also be expected as bus stops are plunged into darkness fueling fears over increased attacks and accidents, leaving some citizens little choice but to jump into their cars.
Over the long term, the government’s hydropower strategy may risk being undermined as unpredictable rainfall and melting glaciers play havoc with hydroelectric plant’s raw ingredient: water.
Improving water governance and adapting to climate change; energy efficiency drives to reduce pressure on the demand side; and expanding the country’s renewable energy portfolio will be required urgently.
Alternative strategies relying on greater use of fossil fuels to fill the gap would be a regressive step considering Ecuador, alongside its Andean Community neighbours, already generate roughly 73% of their energy from hydropower.
The Brazilian development bank BNDES (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social) has approved its largest ever loan to finance a new hydroelectric power station.
According to BNDES:
[It has] approved R$ 7.2 billion (approximately €2.44) for the construction of the Jirau Power Plant. The funding will be granted for the company, Energia Sustentável do Brasil (ESBR), responsible for the project developed in the Madeira River, which has an installed capacity of 3300 megawatts. It is worth highlighting the implementation of an associated transmission system to outflow the power produced by the plant to the city of Porto Velho.
The Jirau project is part of the Madeira River Hydroelectric Complex which will consist of four power plants along the river. Two will be within Brazilian territory, the third will straddle the Brazil-Bolivia border and the fourth will be located entirely in Bolivian territory.
The project is being heralded as a new landmark in the implementation of large-sized hydroelectric plants in Brazil. It was designed to generate the lowest social and environmental impact possible and the flooded area is estimated to stretch over 258 square kilometers, well below the average.
BNDES will also invest in social and environmental activities by allocating R$532 million for 29 social and environmental programs, with an estimated budget of R$610.6 million.
However, last year Reuters reported a heated exchange when GDF SUEZ, which pipped to the post construction company Odebrecht and state utility company Furnas, were successful in moving the dam site nine kilometers from the original site in order to save over R$1 billion in construction costs.
In response, Odebrecht and the federal public prosecutor’s office threatened legal action suggesting GDF SUEZ should have proposed the change before the auction or conduct the five-year environmental study again.
As Odebrecht and GDF Suez are partners in other generation projects in Brazil, the government has been keen to put a plug in the dispute as it struggles to meet growing energy demands.
Although Brazil has been very successful in developing low-cost hydroelectric generation, the spate over the Jirau Project reflects broader problems with the development of new hydropower projects. Burdensome licensing processes and unclear procedures for managing environmental and social issues are a particular problem.
The environmental licensing process is usually long and expensive. The cost of dealing with environmental and social issues in hydropower development represents about 12 percent of total project cost.
As hydropower can have negative environmental and social consequences with most projects being built in fragile and inhabited Amazonian ecosystems, licensing procedures are critical.
But they need not be so arduous. The World Bank suggests a number of legislative and regulatory changes and by complementing Environmental Impact Assessment with zoning plans and Strategic Environmental Assessments.
Hydropower is expected to maintain its top position in Brazil’s energy matrix by making up 75% of its electricity by 2015. This could prove significant for reducing GHG emissions estimated to be around 18 MtCO2e per year.
However, emissions reductions are one side of the coin and should not usurp legitimate social and environmental concerns. Effective, swift and representative licensing procedures safeguarding these concerns should therefore remain paramount.
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