Brazil’s Growing Energy Need: Is Wind Power the Solution?

Whether they are used romantically, to celebrate life, or to remember death, candles have been, since the invention of modern light sources, a magical phenomenon. They create a uniquely comforting and captivating aura. In fact, there is a tendency in the modern world to reserve candlelight for special occasions. However, when there are no other alternative light sources and people are forced to reduce their electricity use, candles slowly begin to lose their charm; they become an inconvenient nuisance.

Brazil, a country where 83 percent of electricity comes from hydropower, underwent a serious energy crisis in 2001 due to one of the worst droughts in decades in that region [1]. So severe that “three-quarters of the 170 million Brazilians [were] told that they must immediately cut [electricity] consumption by 20 percent or [they were going to] face rolling blackouts and unscheduled power interruptions,” reported The New York Times [2]. In addition to increased crime along the darkened streets, only half of Brazil’s hospitals had electricity generators and so faced dangerous cutbacks. Consumption stagnated and the country’s economic growth was predicted to decrease by as much as 50 percent. Marketplace speculators often said words like “recession” and “inflation” as they feared a loss of foreign investment. Suddenly, dining or reading strictly by candlelight was not as delightful.

Brazil’s heightened demand for energy has forced the government to search for more viable energy sources. For example, over the past two and a half decades they have turned to the construction of large hydropower plants. Yet, although hydropower is a renewable resource, some of the projects continue to face construction difficulties as well as humanitarian criticism. Today, Brazil is also beginning to invest more in wind mill-generated electricity since it is becoming more economically viable, and Brazilians seem to generally support it. Finally, the question remains, will wind power be the solution to Brazil’s failed attempts to remedy its growing energy demand?

Talking about the 2001 cutbacks, Armando Tavares Araújo, an engineer interviewed by The New York Times said, “I’m absolutely disgusted, indignant at the fact that we, the Brazilian people, are going to be made to suffer because for nearly 20 years the government hasn’t planned ahead and kept up with demand” [1].

A study on the Brazilian industrial sector from 1995 to 2005 illustrates a large decrease in Brazil’s energy intensity, or in other words, “the ratio between energy consumption and economic activity” [3]. Brazil’s energy consumption increased by about 40 percent from the years 1995 to 2004 and, more specifically, the use of electricity in the industrial sector also increased by about 35 percent. In the end, Brazil’s quantitative improvement in energy efficiency is due to the even larger growth in economic activity during those years [3]. However, what is crucial to understand is that Brazil’s overall energy consumption continues to increase, and there are no signs that it will slow down anytime soon. Unfortunately, for the Brazilian government to realize its need to diversify its electricity sources, it seems that the situation must first reach a level of desperation much as it did in 2001.

So what had been the government’s standard alternative energy sources up until this point? Not only had the Brazilian government ignored the continuously growing need for energy and energy diversification leading to disorderly cutbacks and general frustration, but it had embraced a blind obsession with the construction of immense hydroelectric dams as the ultimate panacea for all the country’s energy problems. From the government’s perspective, Brazil’s “extensive river networks [gave it] the greatest hydropower potential in the world” [4] and this geographical advantage could not be wasted.  These large projects, specifically the Belo Monte dam along the Xingu river, would not only generate cleaner energy, but they would “achieve some of the fundamental objectives of the Brazilian Federal Constitution, such as the promotion of human dignity, national development, eradication of extreme poverty, and the reduction of social and regional inequalities” [4].

Like many political propositions, this one was partly truthful but also ignored other important issues. Most importantly, prior to initiating the construction process the government did not engage in any sort of open communication with the indigenous population directly affected by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. The Inter-American Commission explicitly demanded the adoption of “substantial measures [to] guarantee the personal integrity of indigenous peoples and their collective existence as such; and to take appropriate measures to prevent the spread of diseases among indigenous peoples as a result of the construction of the dam and of the massive population influx that the project would cause” [4]. The government rejected such a claim since the project was not going to interfere with the geographic demarcation of indigenous land.

On the other hand, critics persisted to say that such a project would in fact affect the indigenous population even if it was not in their particular territory. The project would interfere with their daily lives because, for example, their vital water flow downstream of the dam would be substantially diminished and much of the aquatic life as well as fauna would be lost, thereby affecting the indigenous people’s ability to hunt and fish [4].

It is clear from the way the Brazilian government has dealt with the Belo Monte project that, indeed, large hydroelectric projects are not the magic solution to all problems. First, hydroelectricity seems impractical during dry seasons. Yes, it is better in terms of its environmental impact than oil or coal extraction and burning, but what about the human rights of the indigenous people? Why are they not taken into consideration as seriously as the growing demand for energy? How can it even be called a solution? This has been the way the government has managed its energy crises and consequently has created even more difficulties. So the question is the same one: how will the Brazilian government step out of this hegemonic, almost irrational, cycle and actually find a sustainable alternative that will significantly serve the growing need for energy?

In 2009, Brazil decided to explore wind power. In fact, the Brazilian government had toyed with the idea back in 2001, but the technology was still too expensive [5]. Every year more and more advances in cost-effective turbines and records of installed capacity are set in wind-generated electricity, thus attracting more countries, among those Brazil [6]. In truth, there are “large wind source[s] distributed in a large portion of the national territory, especially on the northern coast” [6]. arie1Interestingly enough, as the level of water flow decreases during Brazil’s drier periods, the wind flow in the Northeast region remarkably increases, almost in a directly proportional manner. On paper, wind seems like the perfect solution. Furthermore, in terms of its environmental impact, at first wind power would emit more CO2 than hydroelectric plants since almost all the parts and technology may have to be imported to Brazil, but in the long run, it has a smaller footprint [6]. Yet, the inclusion of such technology in the Brazilian energy sector is still in its forming stages, so there is no sufficient data to truly know how wind energy will turn out compared to the current energy sources.arie2

What has been studied, however, is Brazilians’ overall acceptance and preference for wind energy. Vestas’ Global Consumer Wind Study 2012 confirms that Brazilians are largely in favor of wind power over other sources of energy [7]. According to this study, 64 percent of Brazilians would pay extra for products made from renewable energy and 78 percent believe that private consumption causes climate change. More than that, 94 percent of the participants claimed that renewable energy is a good solution to mitigate climate change.

Not only does the Vestas study illustrate Brazilian’s general acceptance of wind energy, but unlike hydroelectric power plants, indigenous people even advocate for windmills in the northeast of Brazil—the area where most wind energy would be harnessed. In 2013 wired.co.uk published an article about how a group of Brazilian indigenous people, the Makuxi, from the Roraima region have been conducting “a wind power trial, in a bid to convince the government that it’s a realistic alternative to the country’s controversial hydroelectric dams” [8].  Some researchers are visiting the Makuxi communities and “mapping the energy needs of families.” This crucial information together with “trail turbine” data, will allow the Makuxi to create “a solid wind power proposal” and submit it to the government.

Nonetheless, one thing is certain, if the government implements wind projects with the same vicious carelessness for indigenous peoples or by violating other human rights, the country’s energy problems will not be resolved. In 2012, Anthony Hall and Sue Branford clearly stipulated in the Critical Sociology publication how President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s current President, cannot “continue to employ authoritarian tactics with little apparent regard for dealing comprehensively with its anticipated severe economic, ecological and social impacts, and with minimal consultation of diverse local groups, especially poorer agricultural and indigenous populations” [9]. Instead, President Dilma needs to step out of the old ways of thinking and become an example to the future leaders of Brazil. She will be tested with the opportunity to implement “more transparent and democratic planning procedures” for the upcoming wind harnessing plants.

Brazil has a growing economy and that can only mean an increasing need for energy. Will Brazil continue to implement the same old routines in a top down approach and disregard the rights and lives of the indigenous people, or is wind power the ultimate solution? Hopefully this time the wind will blow out the candles and turn on the lights for a brighter future.

References:

[1] Landau, Georges D. “The Brazilian Energy Sector: An Overview.” Petroleum – Gas University Of Ploiesti Bulletin, Law & Social Sciences Series 62, no. 1: 135-140 (2010). Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost.

[2] Rohter Larry. “Energy Crisis in Brazil Is Bringing Dimmer Lights and Altered Lives.” The New York Times, June 6, 2001. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/06/world/energy-crisis-in-brazil-is-bringing-dimmer-lights-and-altered-lives.html.

[3] Fabiano Ionta Andrade Silva, Sinclair Mallet Guy Guerra. “Analysis of the Energy Intensity Evolution in the Brazilian Industrial Sector—1995 to 2005.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 13, no. 9: 2590 (2009). Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/science/article/pii/S1364032109000136.

[4] Vinodh Jaichand and Alexandre Andrade Sampaio. “Dam and Be Damned: The Adverse Impacts of Belo Monte on Indigenous Peoples in Brazil,” Human Rights Quarterly 35, no. 2: 410 (2013). Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/.

[5] Brian Winter. “In Brazil ‘this is wind power’s moment’.” The Globe and Mail, September 23, 2013. Available at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/breakthrough/brazil-cools-on-nuclear-power-favors-wind/article14470508/.

[6] Neilton Fidelis da Silva, Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, Maria Regina Araújo. “The Utilization of Wind Energy in the Brazilian Electric Sector’s Expansion.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 9, no. 3: 291 (2005). Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy3.library.jhu.edu/science/article/pii/S1364032104000668.

[7] Global Consumer Wind Study (2012). TNSGallup, Vestas. Available at: http://www.vestas.com/Files/Filer/EN/Energy%20Transparency/GlobalConsumerWindStudy2012.pdf

[8] Ian Steadman. “Brazilian Indigenous People Turn to Wind Power as Dam Alternative.” Wired, May 13, 2013. Available at: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-05/13/brazil-indigenous-wind-power.

[9] Anthony Hall and Sue Brandford. “Development, Dams and Dilma: the Saga of Belo Monte,” Critical Sociology 38, no. 6: 851 (2012).

Image credit:

[1] Map from Neilton Fidelis da Silva, Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, Maria Regina Araújo. “The Utilization of Wind Energy in the Brazilian Electric Sector’s Expansion.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 9, no. 3: 294 (2005). http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy3.library.jhu.edu/science/article/pii/S1364032104000668.

[2] Graph from Neilton Fidelis da Silva, Luiz Pinguelli Rosa, Maria Regina Araújo. “The Utilization of Wind Energy in the Brazilian Electric Sector’s Expansion.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 9, no. 3 (2005): 302. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy3.library.jhu.edu/science/article/pii/S1364032104000668.

Arie Grunberg is fascinated by the intersection of science, technology, and society. He will major in Public Health Studies with a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management and will graduate with the class of 2015. He is looking to excel in an exciting consulting career in the future!

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