More to Consider: Electricity in Brazil

Brazil has big decisions to make concerning its electricity landscape, dictated until now by the flow of water. Hydroelectricity accounted for approximately 86 MW of Brazil’s 127 MW of installed generating capacity in 2013.[1] But hydroelectricity is not as secure as it once was, with considerable inter-annual and seasonal variability in water supply, only thought to increase in the future. Last year, for example, the southeastern part of Brazil experienced the “most severe drought in at least 80 years,” a region also responsible for “70 percent of the country’s hydroelectric generation.”[2] The Belo Monte dam is still being built, but a shift is nonetheless underway.


But is that shift in the right direction?

Fossil fuel sources combined for another 37 MW of the country’s 2013 installed generating capacity.[3] According to the New York Times, Brazil’s policy response to the drought was “a sustained investment in gas and coal,” which contributed to an increase in GHG emissions, as “concerns about the environment dropped down the priority list.”[4]

While Brazil remains relatively low in GHG emissions when compared with countries like the U.S., better electricity investments ­– moving away from non-renewables and centralized generation – could help it to keep GHG numbers low, meet its generation needs, adapt to climate change, and preserve its environment and public health.

Doing the math, less than 5 MW of Brazil’s 2013 installed generating capacity came from alternative sources like wind, solar, nuclear, and biomass. With substantial generation potentials for wind and solar, scarce use is not about resources but other factors such as cost competitiveness and shortsighted policy, such as spending hundreds of billions of dollars developing infrastructure to drill 4 miles down into the ocean for oil in a market that has gone topsy-turvy. Even when ignoring externalities such as those from air pollution, though, alternative sources are nearing grid parity. So cost competitiveness is less of an issue. As costs continue to drop, the onus will increasingly fall on policymakers to support sensible investments.

The question is: What other factors should policymakers consider in guiding Brazil’s electricity investments, transitioning to something more sustainable?

As a large country with a relatively spread out population, one key investment consideration should be the differential potentials for decentralized, or distributed, generation among the sources. Electricity should increasingly be generated near where it will be used, to cut transmission losses and increase efficiency. One feasible example of this type of generation could be eucalyptus biomass, possible even in the northeast of the country.


Another key consideration, as a country with globally important biodiversity, should be the differential ratios of energy generated to land used among the different sources. There should be no false choice between generating electricity and protecting critical habitats.

Deciding on policies to guide investment will be undeniably complicated, with many factors to consider. But no matter what, Brazil’s electricity generation should in the future rely more on renewable sources like wind, solar, and biomass.

Brendan Hall
MPP/MS ’15

[1] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2014). “Analysis Briefs: Brazil”. <;

[2] Rochas, A., & Samora, R. (2015). “Brazil water supply, crops still at risk a year after epic drought.” Reuters. <;

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2014). “Analysis Briefs: Brazil”. <;

[4] Porter, E. (2014). “In Latin America, Growth Trumps Climate”. The New York Times. <;

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