The last post I published was written in a rush because I was trying to take advantage of the strong internet connection in Belém before my flight back to Marabá. Reading it over now, I realize I didn’t give enough attention to explaining why exactly we want to install solar panels in Cabelo Seco. As you probably can tell, I am a strong advocate of the expansion of renewable energy. Brazil is actually doing very well on the international front, with around half of their energy consumption derived from renewable resources. Unfortunately, 80% of the renewable energy generation is coming from socially and environmentally damaging hydroelectric dams. This is a shame considering there are perfect environmental conditions for a thriving solar energy industry. In Marabá in particular, the sun shines radiantly from 10am to 5pm. When I responded to the question of “why?” with “why not?” in my last post, I made it seem like installing a solar panel was a simple question of yes or no. In reality, the reason why solar energy has not blossomed across Brazil is a lack of political will. The incentives and subsidies that do exist are not enough to encourage people to invest in the high initial cost of solar installations. For example, during my meetings with GEDAE earlier this week I learned to my dismay that there is no renewable energy credit system here. I was eager to see how this aspect of our project would develop having worked for an environmental brokerage firm last year. Renewable energy credits (RECs) represent the environmental benefits resulting from the generation of electricity from a renewable resource. In the U.S., a renewable-based generator produces two products: the physical electricity and RECs, which represent the fact that the electricity came from a renewable resource. The REC can be packaged and sold separately from the electricity by the owner of the generator. I’m getting a little off topic here… The point is, the absence of this market in Brazil implies that there could be less incentive for businesses or individuals to invest in solar energy. So on one end, I’m hoping that this solar energy project will bring an increased awareness about the presence and potential of the sun.
There is also a more profound logic behind our decision to implement a project about solar energy. As mentioned above, hydroelectricity currently composes around 80% of Brazil’s renewable energy sector. There has been ample documentation on the dangerous impacts that hydroelectric dam construction can have on natural habitats, terrestrial and marine wildlife, water quality, air quality and indigenous populations. Yet the promise of economic profit largely pushes aside the careful consideration these factors deserve. Among the hundreds of large hydropower projects planned for the Amazon River Basin exists a plan for one right here in Marabá. With a 2,160 MW capacity, the project should begin construction in the beginning of 2015 on the Tocantins River. The dam is projected to impact 9-12 different municipalities in the region (the numbers vary by source) in three different states: Pará, Tocantins and Maranhão. Economic viability reports have been completed and the environmental impact assessment (EIA) is in progress. The regions that will be affected by inundation are apparently full of Brazil nut trees, different varieties of wood, and valuable wildlife that sustains the livelihoods of indigenous people. Crucially, the dam will affect the indigenous territory of Mãe Maria, already known as the most impacted indigenous land in Brazil due to the amount of industrial projects cutting through the region. Indigenous populations are speaking out against the construction and have demanded the right to determine the anthropologist and technical team that will conduct the EIA. They refuse to accept that the company constructing the dam will also carry out the assessment on its potentially harmful impacts. However, there are also many residents in Marabá and the surrounding areas celebrating the possibility of this new development. Maybe they are unaware of the fact that the generated electricity will primarily supply steel enterprises striving to amplify their iron and copper mining projects. Ironically, a relatively cleaner electricity will be used to intensify dirty projects.
In the words of Marabá’s mayor, one local newspaper writes,
“…a nova barragem não pode cometer os mesmos erros que foram cometidos quando da construção da Hidrelétrica de Tucuruí, mas entende que é importante a geração de energia hidrelétrica porque e a fonte mais limpa que existe”
“… the new dam cannot commit the same errors that were committed when the Tucuruí hydroelectric dam was constructed, and he understands that the generation of hydroelectric energy is important because it is the cleanest source that exists” (Filho 2013).
I beg to differ. With minimal environmental impact, the ability to function in complete silence, no moving parts, and relatively low maintenance (almost none for systems connected to the grid), solar energy represents an even more sustainable alternative to large hydroelectric dams. It’s not that the construction of hydroelectric dams is inherently disastrous, but rather, the model that accompanies their construction. The solar panel project is a response to this violence. It suggests that Brazil can take another pathway toward sustainability that will genuinely result in sustainable communities, as opposed to displaced ones. Moreover, this project places electricity generation in hands of the people. It becomes accessible. Gira-Sol is planting the seed for a deeper conversation, or debate, about a different reality.
If you are interested in learning more about the hydroelectric dam projects around the world, I would seriously recommend visiting my good friend Gus Greenstein’s blog, River Solitaire. Gus was awarded a Thomas J. Watson fellowship this year and will be traveling throughout India, Southeast Asia, Central and South America, studying the social impacts associated with large hydroelectric dam projects.
Chagas Filho. December 29th, 2012. “Construção da hidrélectrica de Marabá vai começar em 2014”. Diário do Pará. Retrieved from: http://diariodopara.diarioonline.com.br/N-164654-CONSTRUCAO+DE+HIDRELETRICA+VAI+COMECAR+EM+2014.html
Chagas Filho. July 25th, 2013. “Hidrélectrica de Marabá: Matéria especial desvela impactos”. Opinão. Retrieved from: http://marabanoticias.com/noticias/economia/798-hidrelectrica-de-maraba-materia-especial-desvela-impactos