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The Problems With Hydropower

Blackout in Brazil

by NIKOLAS KOZLOFF

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.

In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.

Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.

In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.

One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.

The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.

How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.

The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.

President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.

With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.

Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”

Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.

But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.

Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.

Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.

Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.

The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.

In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.