A Path Toward the Future, or a Road to Nowhere?

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I recently was interviewed by Brazil´s Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, and probably said a lot more than I should have. The first part of my interview, translated into English is about energy alternatives for Brazil.

Q. According to Brazil´s National Electric Energy regulatory agency (ANEEL), Brazil´s only options for energy are to advance on Amazonia, or invest in nuclear energy. What other options does Brazil have that are not being utilized?

Glenn Switkes – Brazil has the great advantage of having many options to meet its energy needs. The country has a great potential in solar energy, as well as a documented wind energy potential of 143 GW, more than the country´s installed capacity today. On the other hand, there is ample room for improvements in energy efficiency. So, there are various energy sources, but what is lacking is the will on the part of the government to recognize that nuclear plants or large hydroelectric dams in the Amazon would have very serious, irreversible impacts and that any alternative to the construction of these plants should be preferable.

Brazil should invest in solar, wind, biomass energy, as well as efficiency, and retrofit older dams, as well as eliminate transmission losses. This will require political will. The problem is that building large dams is big business, and there is a group of construction and equipment companies who have a tight relationship with Brazil´s energy planners. These projects cost as much as ten billion dollars, and that moves a lot of money under the table. The companies finance political campaigns, and make politicians wealthy.

Regarding the nuclear issue, I feel an important factor is the influence of the military, because nuclear energy is seen as a doorway toward Brazil eventually developing nuclear weapons. This was always viewed with interest by the military, and will continue to be an important factor when there is public discussion regarding nuclear plants such as Angra 3.

Q. So, building dams and nuclear plants, rather than solar, wind, and biomass energy is a political and economic question?

Glenn Switkes – I think it is even more a political rather than an economic question. You have only to look at the quantity of subsidies that large dams in the Amazon would receive in loans from the National Development Bank (BNDES) and money from the Workers´ Unemployment Fund, among others, without any effort to internalize the cost of impacts on fish and fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which sustain the quality of life of traditional populations of Amazonia. This is absurd. If the Brazilian government implanted a project for solar energy in the country, it could become a significant supplier of solar panels worldwide, which would mean a path toward the future. Instead, Brazil is one of the few countries today which insist in utilizing obsolete technologies, such as large dams and nuclear plants – a road to nowhere.