Brazil’s Drought Threatens Power Generation and Economy

Posted: October 6, 2021

It’s no secret that many parts of the world, including South America, are facing severe droughts this year. One of the most affected areas is the country of Brazil and now it’s starting to affect the nation’s power generation and agricultural economy.

Too Many Eggs in One Basket

Brazil is routinely recognized as one of the “greenest” countries due to its mix of electricity generation. In 2020, hydropower was responsible for 66% of all electricity generation. If you include solar and wind generation, that bumps the number up to 77%. Unfortunately, having 2/3 of power generation centered on a potentially intermittent source is not the strongest bet to make. The next largest source of power is natural gas at roughly 10%, and that will likely increase.

brail generation by source

Long Distance Transmission

Much of Brazil’s hydropower infrastructure is built around the Amazon in the Northern part of the country, but the largest demand for power is much closer to the East and South. This poses a huge challenge in terms of transmission. In order to successfully transmit the power, Brazil became home to the two longest power transmission lines in the world. This means there are plenty of transformer stations along the way translating to huge losses in energy and efficiency.

Madeira transmission line map
The Madeira transmission line is the longest in the world

The Effects of Deforestation on Rainfall

In a tropical rainforest, most rainfall is produced by condensation that occurs on leaves. This is called evapotranspiration, or simply evaporation from vegetation. When forests are removed from an area, evapotranspiration decreases drastically. This leads to less moisture in clouds, which means they produce less rain. Without rain clouds, the rain will no longer fall on any remaining trees or vegetation in a forested area. Without a source of water for growth and energy generation, entire plant communities may fail entirely which feeds into more deforestation. Farmers will clear large plots of land in order to raise cattle. This further decreases the amount of water available to generate hydropower. If the trend of deforestation continues the issues of intermittency surrounding Brazil’s hydropower will only grow even worse.

what is evapotranspiration

How Brazil is Navigating the Drought

Brazil has been preparing for this drought for quite some time. While hydroelectric power is representative of 2/3 of their energy portfolio, it used to be 90%. Since then, the country has worked to diversify its energy portfolio by leaning on natural gas and sugar cane ethanol. Natural gas will continue to deliver power, but sugar cane ethanol prices have skyrocketed thanks to the drought. Fewer quality crops are being grown causing sugarcane ethane to fail just as badly as hydroelectric. At present, Brazil is doing its best to ration water to communities and requesting that its citizens use less power. Until this drought gets better, Brazil lacks the energy resources to properly supply power to its citizens, much less its behemoth of an agricultural sector.

cracked ground brazil drought
This photo from Reuters shows just how badly the drought is affecting the land


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