Rivers of the Amazon: Can They Be Used on a Sustainable Basis as a Source of Renewable Hydropower? | Wilson Center

Rivers of the Amazon: Can They Be Used on a Sustainable Basis as a Source of Renewable Hydropower?

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Are hydroelectric power plants the best approach to meet Brazil's energy demand? The construction of Jirau and Santo Antonio, two hydroelectric power plants on the Madeira River in the Western Amazon, sparked debate about how to balance energy production with environmental conservation.

In a panel organized by the Brazil Institute, Luiz Gabriel Todt de Azevedo, director for sustainability of Construtora Norberto Odebrecht S.A, the leading construction company involved in the Santo Antonio project, discussed the effects of hydropower plant construction on the Southwestern Amazon ecosystem. Christine Pendzich, energy and environmental consultant to the Wilson Center, offered comments on the contextual issues related to the rainforest protection and climate change.

With a projected generating capacity of 3,150 MW, Santo Antonio is the first of two power plants to be built on the Madeira river. The second, Jirau, with a projected generating capacity of 3,000 MW, was contracted to a consortium led by GDF Suez, a French multinational. Together, Santo Antonio and Jirau will increase Brazil's current hydroelectricity generating capacity in 8 percent.

With 60 percent more hydropower development potential than North America, 67 percent of which remain unexplored, South America's rivers offer vast energy possibilities. Azevedo highlighted how Santo Antonio will serve as an example of sustainable energy production in the Amazon.

The new technology will use bulb turbines to generate electricity from the river's natural current, leading to less flooding of forest land and a better passage for fish and sediment. Santo Antonio and Jirau are estimated to flood only about 250 km² each as opposed to four to five times more if a traditional vertical turbine system were to be built. Furthermore, the hydropower plants on the Madeira river will generate more electricity per square kilometer of flooded land, making these new plants 20-100 times more efficient than the traditional system.

"By adopting this technology, Brazil forfeited the opportunity to double the energy potential of the Madeira River," Azevedo stated. Traditional hydropower methodologies can generate more electricity but at the cost of flooding vulnerable communities and forest areas. The decision to use the new technology shows Brazil's commitment to "a solution that balances energy production with environmental sustainability."

Odebrecht also supports local involvement and environmental protection policies. Azevedo cited a few examples: holding community meetings with local residents and indigenous groups; creating a training program (Projeto Acreditar) to build local technical skills; and investing in the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) – the world's largest tropical forest conservation program headed by the World Wildlife Fund and the Brazilian government.

Azevedo provided recommendations for hydropower plant construction. He urged companies to promote environmental gains as opposed to simply mitigating destruction. Businesses should anticipate impacts, learn from mistakes, share benefits with the local population, and work transparently.

Governments can help foster these projects by bringing hydropower licensing discussions to a higher level and creating strategic plans rather than debating issues on a case-by-case basis. Furthermore, they can increase their effectiveness by establishing clear boundaries, strengthening rule enforcement, and providing incentives to good performers.

Pendzich's remarks provided a larger context to the discussion of hydropower in the Amazon. She mentioned two important dimensions that must be considered: first, a national energy plan that considers climate change; and second, a broader strategic approach for development in the Amazon.

Although agreeing with Azevedo that hydropower plants could help meet Brazil's growing energy demand, Pendzich questioned whether the preponderance of hydropower currently being planned for Brazil's national energy network is appropriate, especially in light of possible water flow changes due to climate change. She proposed a greater role for other alternatives, such as enhanced energy efficiency and conservation measures; bolstering Proálcool, Brazil's ethanol program, and generating energy through the burning of bagass, a sugarcane byproduct.

Although the Amazon is rich with energy potential, Pendzich pointed out that the high-demand remains in southeast Brazil. Given that fact, she is concerned that the construction of the high tension, long distance transmission lines needed to carry power from the Amazon to their final end use would be very expensive, raising the overall cost of hydropower to the country.

Pendzich noted that Brazil's hydropower strategies should account for changing rainfall patterns. Climate change, affecting rainfall patterns, makes electricity generation vulnerable to droughts. Azevedo addressed her concern explaining that Brazil's integrated transmission system helps deal with this problem, moving electricity from areas of sufficient rainfall in times of drought.

Rapid deforestation caused by illegal logging, mining, and burning threatens the environmental sustainability of the Western Amazon. The issues of hydroelectricity add to this complexity. Azevedo stressed that ignoring the situation will not solve anything, and Brazil needs to meet its growing energy demand. Both Azevedo and Pendzich agreed that solutions must come from strategic planning, encompassing energy needs, local community development, and climate change.

Drafted by Amanda Earley.