Floating solar plants could ease Brazil’s energy shortfall brought on by sustained drought

By Arman Kazemi

April 09, 2015

Brazil’s prolonged drought has prompted the sun-rich nation’s biggest move toward solar energy to date, after decades of avoiding solar technology.

Eduardo Braga, Brazil’s Minister of Mines and Energy, recently announced an ambitious project to outfit some of the country’s largest hydroelectric plants with solar rigs to be set atop the dams’ depleting water supplies.

Brazil is in the midst of the worst drought in 80 years, aggravated by the country’s increased industrial activity, climate change and the continued degradation of the Amazon rainforest.

All this has resulted in a dramatic decline in hydro supply, the raw material used to produce 80 per cent of electricity in a country that has been called “the Saudi Arabia of water.”

As recently as 2012, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (also former chairwoman of the Petrobras oil company) called solar energy a “fantasy.” But ahead of Brazil’s traditional seven-month dry season, the largest country in Latin America will do everything it can to diversify its energy grid in order to avoid widespread blackouts similar to the one that hit 11 of the country’s 26 states, as well as the capital Brasilia, earlier this year.

The biggest component of the program will be located at the site of the controversial Balbina hydroelectric plant in the Amazon.

Environmentalists blame Balbina for the degradation of local habitat as well as the release of more greenhouse gases than the average coal-burning plant. Yet in as little as four months, the dam will host a new 350-megawatt solar plant fitted onto floaters atop the 2,360 square kilometer reservoir leading into the dam.

The government hopes to maximize land use and existing energy infrastructure by supplementing the dam’s reduced power capacity with solar panels. The solar plant will further help conserve the dam’s water supply by providing surface shade while also using surrounding water to cool down its conversion mechanism, thereby increasing efficiency.

All this comes only a few months after Brazil’s first foray into the solar market. Last October, Brazil’s government auctioned off contracts for 1048 MW of solar energy across 31 planned sites, raising $1.67 billion for projects that would start feeding into the country’s energy grid by 2017.

“We are preparing ourselves to win the challenge in 2015 and be able to deliver a model and an [KT1] electric system starting in 2016 which will be cheaper, more secure and with greater technological innovation,” Energy Minster Braga told reporters during this latest announcement.

“This is a pioneering project, and one that we need to test out,” he said.


Photo Credit: Lance Cheung