HomeWorld RegionsLatin AmericaCrisis spurs development of alternative energy in Brazil

Crisis spurs development of alternative energy in Brazil

By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov. 3, 2000 (IPS)à‚–There’s nothing like a crisis to drive the development of renewable energy sources. Electrical shortages on top of high petroleum prices threaten to obstruct Brazil’s economic growth, leading policy-makers to look for alternative energy supplies.

Times like this stimulate interest in sustainable options, which generally are ignored during healthier economic periods, observed Alexandre Pereira, a researcher at the Brazilian Centre for Wind Energy (CBEE), associated with the Federal University of Pernambuco.

The economic recovery recorded this year in Brazil has meant higher activity, cutting into the reserves of the nation’s electrical system, which has been lacking investment since the 1980s, acknowledged the sector’s authorities.

Abundant rainfall in recent months has staved of the danger of blackouts during the austral summer that numerous experts had predicted. But the next three years will be tight if the 49 electricity generating plants – based on natural gas imported from Bolivia – are not up and operating soon.

Energy shortages could stand in the way of Brazil’s economic growth, forecast to reach more than four percent annually.

The government promised to encourage the development of wind energy, improve utilisation of biomass and build small hydroelectric plants in order to complement the national energy system, 90 percent of which is currently supplied by mega- hydroelectric installations.

Sugarcane waste pulp could be an important energy source for Brazil, as the country is the world’s leader in sugar production from cane, which also yields alcohol. This, mixed with gasoline, or as a fuel with no additives, is used in automobiles.

The Sao Paulo Sugarcane Agro-Industrial Union, representing most of the nation’s sugar and alcohol production, reports that waste pulp could supply 10 percent of Brazil’s annual electrical energy consumption, calculated at 300,000 gigawatts per hour (a gigawatt equals one million watts).

Sugar producers have traditionally burned waste pulp to generate energy for their own consumption. But the sector is already able to sell surplus energy to distribution firms through the so-called “co-generation system.”

The power available from the sugar industry reaches 700 megawatts, just over one percent of the national total, according to Marcos Freitas, superintendent of hydrology at the National Electrical Energy Agency (ANEEL), the state regulatory body.

Energy production from sugarcane pulp faces difficulties because it requires heavy investment, which drives up costs. As a result, only the large sugarcane processing plants can compete on the energy market.

Another problem is that pulp does not provide a continuous biomass source because the sugar sector is active just six months of the year.

Electricity produced from sugarcane pulp has environmental advantages, however. The process produces less carbon dioxide, the leading cause of global warming, and is based on a renewable energy source. The sector would also create jobs in rural areas and allow for local energy generation, with the consequent savings in transmission costs.

In addition to sugarcane pulp, research is underway to utilise rice offal in the Brazilian south, and the waste from other grains and forest products, such as paper and cellulose, in energy generation, said Freitas, author of a study on alternative energy sources.

As far as hydroelectric energy, ANEEL expanded its definition of small hydroelectric projects, which receive subsidies, from 30 to 50 megawatt capability. The agency is thus stimulating further investment in that source, Freitas explained.

But the electricity produced from wind is the least expensive of alternative sources, though “it is only just getting started” in Brazil, said Pereira, the expert from the Centre for Wind Energy, based in the northeastern city of Recife.

With sights set on future development of this source, which is “four times cheaper than solar energy,” the Centre is taking part in creating a national Wind Atlas, mapping Brazil’s winds and average velocities.

Wind energy development means locating an area with adequate average wind speeds. The only other limitation is the space occupied by the turbines.

Wind is providing electricity in the northeast where “there is a lack of both water and available biomass,” Freitas said.

Two independent wind installations generate 15 megawatts daily in Cear

The Centre is working with ANEEL to study the possibility of supplying the 2,300 residents of Fernando de Noronha Island with wind energy. The island is a leading tourist destination and a strategic site in the Atlantic. The idea is to replace the use of diesel fuel, a polluting petroleum derivative.

But the portion of wind energy in Brazil’s total electrical consumption remains almost zero. The turbines operating so far have been imported, though a German company has set up a factory near Sao Paulo to manufacture the windmills once there is a sufficient market, Pereira pointed out.

“A change in mentality” is necessary for diversifying energy sources, especially since the major enterprises in the sector only involve the mega-hydroelectric projects, he added. (END/IPS/tra-so/mo/ff/ld/00)

Copyright (c) 2000. Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.