In the last two decades, Brazil has increased its electricity production by 78%, but has not maintained the same proportion in terms of renewable sources. Meanwhile, thermoelectric plants had their capacities expanded and multiplied, especially after measures taken by the government of Jair Bolsonaro (PL), impacting the environment and increasing the cost of electricity bills.
This is what environmental protection institutions point out and indicates a recent study carried out by the Energy and Environment Institute (IEMA), released this Wednesday (29). The report focuses on the dozens of active thermoelectric plants in the National Interconnected System (SIN) in 2020 and alerts to the fact that, in the last two decades, the burning of fossil fuels for energy production jumped from 9% to 14%.
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In comparisons made with data for the year 2000, the institute also provides data on the increasing diversification of generation sources, including some non-hydric renewables, such as wind, solar and biomass. A counterpoint to the expansion of the burning of fossil fuels, such as natural gas and mineral coal, which almost tripled in 20 years, jumping from 30.6 TWh to 84.8 TWh.
A trend that, according to environmentalists, will increase if the 17 gas-fired thermoelectric projects contracted during an emergency auction in October 2021 are in operation. The deadline stipulated by the National Energy Agency (Aneel) ended on May 1, but most of the plants have their works delayed.
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André Luis Ferreira, director-president of IEMA, projects that atmospheric emissions from the electricity sector grew by 77% in 2021, although he claims that data for a more accurate measurement are still unavailable. He also reinforces that more than 80% of energy production in Brazil still comes from renewable sources, but that the participation of the hydraulic matrix has been falling over the years.
“A thermal power plant is a very important source of air pollution, whatever fuel you put in it. Depending on where it is located or the agglomeration of plants in the territory, there are greater risks to public health, since a series of pollutants are released into the atmosphere”, he warns.
Mineral coal plants gain survival and grow
With data made available by the public service thermoelectric plants, a ranking classifies those that produce the most and pollute the most. In addition to highlighting that coal-fired plants meet the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the study also underlines the socio-environmental damage caused by the concentration of plants.
“The number of plants in Manaus (AM), in Macaé (RJ) and in Capivari de Baixo (SC) is noteworthy. This concentration has been a trend, perhaps for technical and economic reasons, but which can have quite reckless consequences”, highlights Felipe Barcellos, IEMA project analyst.
It also illustrates the impact of the four plants that make up the Jorge Lacerda Thermoelectric Complex. “In a city that has 5,000 inhabitants, like Capivari de Baixo, the emission is equivalent to five times the bus fleet of São Paulo. This shows how these plants emit a lot”, he reinforces.
Another very active organization in this region and in the fight against fossil fuels, the Arayara International Institute has already gone to court to guarantee social and environmental recovery from the “disaster” caused by the plants.
In several actions that, together, reach R$ 1.5 billion, the organization demands the accountability of the companies Engie, Fram Capital and Diamante Brasil that run the enterprise.
According to Juliano Bueno de Araújo, director of Arayara, 95% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Santa Catarina are produced by the plants from the combustion of Brazilian coal. He believes that the choice is made by a combination of greed and leniency from the authorities.
“Our coal in the geology market is very thin. In other words, you have to burn two to three times more coal than in Poland or the United States to produce the same energy, putting much more mercury, sulfur and greenhouse gases in the air”, explains Araújo.
Water crisis and Eletrobras helped boost thermoelectric plants
Even though they are still not operating normally, the new thermoelectric plants contracted in 2021 had their path facilitated by the water emergency, decreed by the government after a long drought in the middle of the year. Faced with a new crisis in his image, Jair Bolsonaro decided to expand the use of thermoelectric plants, taking advantage of gaps in environmental legislation.
“What we’ve seen since last September’s emergency auction, where the country contracted gas-fired thermal plants that cost 6 times more per megawatt generated than the thermal that is delivering for 5 years or to hydroelectric plants. it is costing 8 to 9 times more”, identifies the director of Arayara.
The Eletrobras privatization process also contributed to adding fuel to the fire of non-renewable sources. The Provisional Measure that allowed the capitalization of the state-owned company also provided for the installation of 8,000 megawatts in gas-fired thermoelectric plants spread across all regions of Brazil.
The regulation passed by the National Congress in May 2021 also approved the extension of subsidies and the survival of coal-fired plants, which should be extinguished by 2040 to meet decarbonization goals.
Environmental licensing, which is the main requirement for the operation of the plants, also lost strength in this period, according to André Luis Ferreira. “As environmental licensing and environmental agencies are completely unstructured, especially in the federal government and Ibama, with few people and no working conditions, this has become a keynote of Brazil’s environmental governance”, he protests.
Investments in renewable sources will be left for the next management
Some alternatives of renewable sources to supply the growing demand for energy tend to be intensified in the next years. Some of them are already known and have a relevant role, such as wind, solar and biomass, but which can still be optimized if combined with other sources already installed.
According to Juliano Araújo, who is an engineer specializing in Environmental Risks and Emergencies, it would be possible to implement wind and solar structures in already installed hydroelectric plants, using their reservoirs without causing significant environmental damage.
“During the day, you inject this new energy into the network and, during the night, you have the hydraulic energy that was already stored in the form of water to generate this type of flotation”, exemplifies Araújo.
Mechanical engineer André Luis Ferreira, this would be a good solution to circumvent the “variability” of wind and solar sources, which according to him is an important limiting factor for these matrices. So he says the key to the equation is energy storage.
“I need to have energy stored to complement these variations. For the short and medium term, Brazil has a huge battery, which are the reservoirs of the existing hydroelectric plants”, says the director-president of IEMA, who also bets on investing in the development of green hydrogen in the long term.
Araújo believes that this issue should be further explored in “any government that takes office next year”, especially due to the need to reduce the cost of energy. “And this is not done with a subsidy, it is done with clean and cheap energy. It needs to be cleaned because otherwise you have a side effect of atmospheric pollution and increased heating that have harmful effects on the economy”, he concludes.
Editing: Rodrigo Durao Coelho