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BELO MONTE : The Beautiful and the Dammed - part 2/2

BELO MONTE : The Beautiful and the Dammed - part 2/2

Illustration by Andrew Holder

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Hydroelectric power is renewable but is it clean? The debate has electrified the alternative energy community.
The solar people are at war with the wind people; algal oil is the enemy of ethanol. The idea of renewable infighting is now such a cliché that it has entered the world of car advertising.

A commercial for a new hybrid car begins with a shelf full of beakers of bright liquids with labels like “hydrogen,” “geothermal,” etc., which the car smashes through as a voiceover announces: “The debate is over.” It’s not, of course. We are in the process of deciding if it is most important for our energy to be reliable, easily accessible, cheap, efficient, renewable, or clean? Different energy sources have different strengths. Our energy future will need to be cobbled together from all kinds of sources; it’s the composition of that mix that is up for debate.

Hydropower is the epitome of renewable energy—electricity from falling water!—and yet, it isn’t necessarily clean. Big dams are perennially controversial because of their effects on people’s communities. Belo Monte, a giant proposed dam in Brazil, is no exception; it will displace tens of thousands of indigenous residents. This human toll is important, but in the spirit of understanding more about hydropower—what it is, what it does and whether it’s clean—let’s focus on how Belo Monte evokes strong partisan responses as a renewable energy source. In addition to disrupting indigenous life, it will flood valuable rainforest and create a reservoir that belches global warming gas. There’s often an element of doom-and-gloom to energy discussions, but the Belo Monte controversy is an occasion to think about renewable energy in a more nuanced way.

In terms of installed capacity, Belo Monte would be the third-largest dam in the world. Installed capacity refers to the maximum amount of power a dam can produce when running at 100%, with as much water as the dam can handle rushing through its turbines. Dams don’t normally produce at this maximum level because of all kinds of factors, chief among them variations in reservoir level. But in the case of Belo Monte, the gap between capacity and output is particularly staggering. According to the International Rivers Network, on average the dam would produce only one-third of its installed capacity, and only one-tenth of its capacity during the Amazon’s six-month dry season. The Xingu river is seasonal, and during the dry season there simply won’t be enough river flow to take anywhere near full advantage of Belo Monte’s massive turbines. And climate change means that Amazonia will see more and more dry years—not just dry months—making Belo Monte’s skimpy output unreliable.

There’s often an element of doom-and-gloom to energy discussions, but the Belo Monte controversy is an occasion to think about renewable energy in a more nuanced  way.

Brazil’s solution for this is likely to be more dams. Belo Monte will cost around $17 billion USD. To be a worthwhile investment, Belo Monte needs to produce a huge amount of power year-round. To make this possible, developers would have to de-seasonalize the Xingu, turning the 1200-mile stretch of river into a series of reservoirs and canals that can be turned on and off on demand. Plans for five more dams upstream of Belo Monte are already underway. Part of the reason there has been such an uproar around Belo Monte is that the people of the Xingu River basin know it’s unlikely to be a standalone project. “They see it as a gateway dam,” says Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch. “The additional dams are already mapped out—we know where they’re likely to be built.”

What exactly would more dams upstream from Belo Monte mean?  They would further disrupt traditional Amazonian life and have a hugely negative impact on the ecology and hydrological cycle that comes from turning a seasonal river into a human-controlled tap. Dams would also cause massive deforestation in the world’s greatest rainforest. Each dam will flood a section of forest, but that immediate deforestation is just the beginning. A network of dams means new roads, and an influx of people moving to the area in search of jobs. They will need to eke out a living, putting more stress on an ecosystem that is already at a tipping point.

* * *

In 2007, magnate and adventurer Richard Branson announced a competition—a $25 million reward for the engineer who could invent a device to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale. A friend and I had both graduated from college with environmental science degrees a few years prior, and we spent a lot of late nights drawing nonsense pictures of floating vacuum cleaners. It’s a tall order: a machine that takes away carbon dioxide, and does it on a global scale. Ideally, it would have to be pretty cheap to operate and could be used anywhere. Without engineering training, it took us a while, but eventually we found the solution. You may have seen our prototype: trees. [Sir Richard, feel free to contact me to discuss that prize money.]

“They see it as a gateway dam,” says Atossa Soltani of Amazon Watch. “The additional dams are already mapped out—we know where they’re likely to be built.”

The Amazon rainforest falls mostly within the borders of Brazil and Peru, but it works tirelessly for the whole planet, which makes what happens in Belo Monte the whole world’s business. The Amazon contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and it helps drive planetary moisture and heat cycles. It also produces 20% of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year. Indigenous groups on the Xingu think of the river as a cultural conduit, a body that inspires and energizes their community and holds the spirits of their ancestors. I don’t. But I love breathing oxygen and living on a planet whose temperature range is hospitable to human life, so what happens to the Amazon matters quite a bit to me too.

And deforestation is just one component of big dams’ carbon footprint. Hydropower seems like it must be clean energy. After all, nothing is burnt; so we would assume that outside of construction there would be no emissions from the dam itself. But climate change has changed our definition of pollution. It doesn’t have to be gray and smoky to be damaging. When reservoirs are created, they flood large tracts of land, and at the bottom of those reservoirs sits all the plant matter that used to grow there before the flood. (In the Amazon, of course, there’s even more.) It sits at the bottom, rotting and producing methane, the same dreaded gas produced by cow farts and four times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent.

For a while, the methane remains dissolved in the colder water at the bottom of the reservoir. Philip Fearnside, a professor of ecology and researcher at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, explains what happens next: “Unlike a natural lake where an outlet stream draws water from near the surface, a hydroelectric dam is like a bathtub where one pulls the plug at the bottom—outflow is through turbines and spillways that are located at depths, where the water is loaded with methane.” When the methane-rich water at the bottom rushes through the turbines, the gas is released into the air. Fearnside’s research suggests that, though this effect is strongest in new dams, it does persist over time. In an earlier study, Fearnside found that in 1990, the then 6-year-old Tucuruí Dam gave off more global warming gas than the city of Sao Paulo.

I love breathing oxygen and living on a planet whose temperature range is hospitable to human life, so what happens to the Amazon matters quite a bit to me too.

Soltani calls dams “old century thinking,” and it’s true that they are an old form of technology; ancient Egyptians built them as far back as 2000 BCE. The 19th and 20th centuries were such a dam-building bonanza that by the year 2000 more than half of the world’s major rivers were controlled by large dams. But there are other ways to harness the power of water. “Run of river” dams keep the dam-and-turbine structure of big hydro, but eliminate the reservoir. They’re considered “unfirm” power sources, as they’re subject to seasonal variation, but they have a much smaller footprint on nearby communities and ecosystems. River turbines take this one step further and eliminate the dam completely. These freestanding turbines go directly into the riverbed, like submerged wind turbines. Neither of these solutions are perfect, and projects would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But they are ways to give hydropower, an old, good idea, the facelift it needs.

No discussion of the future of energy would be complete with talking about efficiency. So let’s. Brazil could cut it’s energy use by 40% by investing aggressively in efficiency technology. According to Soltani, Brazil’s peak energy use could be cut by 18% just by switching from showerhead-level “on demand” water heaters, to other sources like solar heating.

Efficiency is always a good idea, but as a resource-guzzling American, I’m not comfortable telling Brazilians how to curb their energy use. People in the developed world (North America, Europe, Australia, Japan) use 32 times more resources than our counterparts in developing nations. That is, it isn’t just Brazilians who are consuming Brazil’s electricity. About ⅓ of the power generated at Belo Monte would go not to Brazilian businesses and residencies, but to nearby mining and extraction businesses. Resources—from kiwi fruit to lithium batteries—flow from the developing world to the developed world’s marketplace. The coal, aluminum, iron, and other minerals extracted in the Amazon are no exception. Just as what happens to the Amazon is every air-breathing person’s business, power grids in the developing world are every stuff-buying person’s responsibility. If we want to decrease the likelihood of destructive energy projects disrupting far-off ecosystems, we need to protest, yes, and stand in solidarity with the people of the Xingu. But we also need to do something harder, and use less stuff.

The call to reduce consumption is familiar, maybe even tiresome, particularly because it seems our individual resource use pales in comparison to the environmental impacts of mega-extraction corporations, like Vale and Alcoa, two of the mining giants that will use the energy created at Belo Monte (Vale has recently bought into the energy consortium that will own and operate the dam). We don’t have obvious access to these companies and can’t, it would seem, influence their decision-making. But we do communicate with them, every time we buy they things they make. Companies like Vale are not inherently evil, they’re not pulling things out of the earth unless they can sell them to us. Vale will use Belo Monte energy primarily to extract iron ore, used in steel, which makes refrigerators, car bodies—and the ships and pipelines that facilitate the transport and purchasing of all kinds of other goods. As a culture, we’ve started thinking more about the ethical and political implications of the things we consume, especially food.  We know what it means to buy local, to buy organic.  We need to start thinking this way about all the other things we buy.  And until they start making free-range, local, organic steel and aluminum, the best solution is an old one: reduce.

Rachel Riederer, is an essayist and environmental journalist

© Myoo - Rachel Riederer

Date : 16/12/2011