Brazil boasts the industrialized world's most renewable energy mix. To maintain this status while growing its electricity system to serve millions of new customers, the country is planning a major expansion of hydroelectric power in the Amazon Basin -- one of the most important ecological systems in the world.

While hydropower is widely accepted as a cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels, environmental groups say dam projects in the Amazon, home to one-fifth of the Earth's fresh water, will only help save the world's lungs at the expense of clogging its arteries.

Building dams in the Amazon also comes at the cost of endangering biodiversity and indigenous livelihoods. Furthermore, academic research shows climate change could severely reduce Brazil's hydro capacity in the coming decades.

But Brazil pledges to bring electricity to poor communities and a growing middle class, as do other countries. The issue will be part of the focus of this summer's U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Many in Brazil view the expansion of hydropower in the Amazon as a sustainable way to increase energy access.

"In this region there are 360,000 people like you and me, people who watch TV, people who enjoy a beer in the evening, people that like to go to dance parties, et cetera. And these people need electricity, these people need comfort," said João Pimentel, director for institutional relations for Norte Energia, the company behind the controversial Belo Monte dam, speaking from the northern city of Altamira.

"We're not talking about a bunch of Indians lost in the Amazon," he said.

Amazon to get 18 new dams
To sustain a growth rate of about 5 percent a year, Brazil needs to add 5,000 megawatts of installed capacity every year, according to Mauricio Tolmasquim, president of Brazil's Energy Research Co., the agency in charge of mapping the future of the energy sector.

The expansion of Brazil's electricity supply over the next 10 years will prioritize renewable energy and especially hydropower, said Tolmasquim in an interview with ClimateWire.

"As developed countries have done in the past, Brazil also plans on continuing to use its hydroelectric potential in an economical and sustainable way, thus continuing to maintain its leadership in the use of renewable energy," he said.

Hydropower currently accounts for more than 75 percent of Brazil's electric energy generation, but only a little more than a third of the country's hydro capacity has been tapped. Developing this potential is vital for Brazil to meet new energy demands as well as its voluntary pledge to reduce its projected greenhouse gas emissions between 36.1 and 38.9 percent by 2020.

The government plans to develop a staggering 48 new hydroelectric power plants by 2020, totaling 42,157 MW of installed power -- with more than 80 percent of that capacity slated to come from 18 new dams in the Amazon River Basin.

Debate over Belo Monte
Today, controversy over hydroelectric developments in Brazil's northern region is playing out over the proposed 11,233-MW Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River, one of the Amazon's biggest tributaries. If built, it would be the third-largest dam in the world.

Last month, a judge reversed an order barring the construction of Belo Monte, to the dismay of many local and international nonprofits. A number of Brazilian and American celebrities, including director James Cameron and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have also come out against it.

Big dams, like Belo Monte, flood large tracts of land, destroy biodiversity, displace indigenous peoples and open up the rainforest to exploitation, said Aviva Imhof, campaigns director for International Rivers, which launched a video campaign last November on how big dams worsen the climate crisis.

The video recalls that the Amazon Basin recently experienced two 100-year droughts within five years, causing disruptions to hydropower plants. It also asserts that Brazil's dams are among the dirtiest in the world, producing more greenhouse gas emissions in some cases than fossil fuel plants.

New dams will also have indirect effects on emissions, said Imhof. For instance, "hydro projects are one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon by opening up previously unexplored areas," she said.

Imhof says it's unclear why there's such a strong push for the project, but she suspects it's linked to interconnections between the energy bureaucracy, corporations and the government. "The energy sector and hydro sector in Brazil are very powerful, so there are a lot of political kickbacks associated with projects of this size and scope," she said.

The state-owned power utility Electrobras and its subsidiaries own 49.98 percent of the Belo Monte development company, Norte Energia. A 9 percent share of Norte Energia belongs to the Brazilian mining company Vale, which has sparked concern that Belo Monte's output will support the expansion of energy-intensive industries that come with their own host of environmental and human rights issues.

But Pimentel of Norte Energia says the deforestation critique "is false." The area around the Belo Monte site, which is now in the beginning stages of construction, is already developed and well-populated, he said. Also, last year, deforestation in Brazil declined to the lowest level since the government started tracking it in 1988.

Finally, the Belo Monte project has been completely changed since it was first proposed in the late 1990s to reduce flooding, greenhouse gas emissions and the displacement of people and biology, said Pimentel.

No hydro, then what?
While the most recent court ruling gives Belo Monte the green light, Imhof says at least 12 cases related to the dam are still outstanding. "The battle goes on," she said.

If Belo Monte is not developed, a new mix of projects would have to replace it, said Tolmasquim. That mix would include smaller hydro projects and other renewables, such as wind, solar and waste, but also thermal power generation from natural gas, fuel oil and coal.

Brazil also needs power plants to meet its baseload generation needs, said Tolmasquim. In this case, the alternatives to hydro "are coal and nuclear plants, which involve relevant environmental issues associated either with CO2 emissions (coal) or the final disposal of radioactive waste (nuclear)," he wrote in an email.

According to Roberto Schaeffer, an associate professor of energy planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, massive new oil discoveries off the coast of Brazil could change the country's energy profile, too. While much of the oil is intended for export, natural gas supplies found alongside oil deposits are more likely to be used domestically, he said.

"It's not a lack of energy that's of concern [for Brazil], but how to use or explore those energy sources taking into account the environmental impacts associated with that," said Schaeffer.

Schaeffer's climate research adds another level of complexity to Brazil's clean energy future. Global climate models find that rainfall in northeast Brazil is expected to decrease in the coming decades, and some rivers could see flows reduced by 60 to 70 percent, he said.

In a series of research papers, Schaeffer and his team determined that hydroelectric production in the Amazon would drop "somewhere between zero and 30 percent" by midcentury, he said. A significant loss would have major implications for Brazil's energy mix.

'No-go' rivers "We'll need 30 percent of energy from something else to replace what climate change will take out of the hydro potential," said Schaeffer. That capacity could come from renewable resources like wind and solar -- or from fossil fuels.

He added that climate models project that the southern area of Brazil will see more rain, which could increase the existing hydropower capacity and help offset losses in the north. He also said there isn't enough evidence for him to recommend that Brazil abandon building hydro in the Amazon just yet.

"No one believes we can leave the Amazon completely untouched, nor do we believe we can use 100 percent of the hydro capacity," said Schaeffer.

"We think the most important thing is to better define 'no-go' rivers that will be preserved," said Pedro Bara-Neto, infrastructure strategy leader of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Amazon Initiative.

WWF recently produced a video outlining its ongoing basinwide assessment and is working with Brazil's environment ministry to determine which rivers in the Amazon Basin should be left untouched.

"The electric sector is advancing the economic frontier by going deeper into the forest," said Bara-Neto. "But they have to accept they can't exploit the whole potential. That will be a big win for us, and a big win for everyone -- the dams, too."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500