Energy Development in the Amazon

Brazil’s energy mix encompasses 82 per cent hydroelectricity, followed by 7 per cent biomass, 5 per cent natural gas, 3 per cent nuclear, 2 per cent petroleum, and 1 per cent coal. While this energy mix is shifting due to urbanization, international trade, and climate conditions, the long-term dependence on hydroelectricity and the growing usage of biomass make these two forms of energy some of the most important to understand.

Brazil has long been dependent on hydroelectricity for the majority of its energy supply. The country has the third largest installed hydroelectric capacity in the world and sees the Amazon as the hydroelectric frontier (da Silva Soito and Freitas 2011). Planning for power generation is therefore generally based on hydroelectric capacity. However, in the past four to five years, hydroelectricity has generated less energy than projected resulting in difficulties in supplying the base load for the economy and also meeting increasing economic growth. As a result, several other forms of energy have advanced in the country, including oil, natural gas, and several other types of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind. Biomass has also grown to 7 per cent of all energy resources resulting in the Amazonian energy mix being focused in these two areas—see McCormick (2016: figure.1). Installations planned in the next eight years will be predominately large dams, small dams, and biomass, in that order of investment. Two areas of petroleum extraction have been developed already. Several ethanol plants will be developed in the north and eastern part of the region. While hydroelectricity is planned across the region, biomass is planned largely for the frontier region in the southern Amazon and one installation in the northern Amazon. The exact number of installations planned is a point of disagreement amongst experts and officials. Figure 1 in McCormick (2016), which is translated from the national energy plan for 2024, or the most recent documentation of energy planning, reflects the planning of five new large dams. However, some other studies have argued that there are up to thirty new dams being planned.

Since the installation of the democratic government, only one large dam complex has been completed in the Amazon. The Rio Madeira Dam complex, constituted by the Santo Antonio and Jirau Dams, are being built in the western Amazon. The dams have an expected 3,150 MW installed capacity that will be consumed in the northern and southern regions of the country. They have had multiple negative localized consequences, such as displacing local indigenous people, threatening the migration of fish populations, and destroying the habitats for multiple species. Most importantly, however, the dam complex reservoirs are meant to be a part of a series of waterways facilitating the export of soy grown in the region (Fearnside 2014). The dam complex began commercial production in 2012, but the second of the two, Santo Antonio, is not yet complete. The second large dam that has been proposed since the 1980s and recently has neared completion is the Belo Monte Dam near Altamira in the western Amazon. Belo Monte will be the third largest dam in the world. It is the most controversial dam project in the history of Brazil and has resulted in numerous violations of human rights laws.

The second largest source of energy in Brazil is biomass. While biomass can be developed in many parts of the country, depending on the type, biomass development in the Amazon has traditionally come from the centre-west region and the north, focused on large-scale conversion of pasture and/or rainforest to crops of carbohydrates, such as sugar cane, soy, and palm. It has grown as an area of investment in recent years with promising future growth (Lora and Andrade 2009). There are several major forms of biomass: sugarcane, soy, switchgrass, and wood. While 61 per cent of Brazil’s land is forest, 1 per cent is used for sugarcane, 0.8 per cent is manually forested, and 3.25 per cent is used for soy bean planting (Colodette etal. 2014). Recently, sugar cane has been one of the forms resulting in approximately 30 million tons of sugar and 20 million tons of ethanol annually (Griffin and Scandiffio 2009). Wood production for charcoal, firewood, wood chips, and soy (Walter, Dolzan, and Piacente 2006) has been based around several types of trees, such as eucalyptus and acacia, that can be produced across the country. The development of soy (along with cattle ranching) has been cited as a primary driver of deforestation (Soares-Filho et al. 2006). Other forms of biomass have been found to drive deforestation, although some of these resources can be developed in locations outside of both the legal Amazon and the frontier area, resulting in less deforestation risk.

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