Sparks

Powering the Jungle

 By Robin Wylie

Approximately 155,000 households in the Brazilian Amazon still do not have access to electricity, largely due to the difficulty in transporting mains power to such isolated, inaccessible locations. A better approach could be to use the rainforest itself. The Amazon is a potentially enormous source of renewable energy (such as solar, hydro, wind and biofuel). So far this source has remained largely untapped but a decade-long trial of renewable technologies in Brazil’s rural north suggests that green power (not diesel) could be the way forward for Amazonians without power. Robin Wylie explains why harnessing this potential is vital…

The northern states of Brazil are dominated by the dense vegetation and myriad waterways of the Amazon rainforest. It’s a region of priceless natural diversity. But for some of the people who make their home in the jungle, the lush environment is keeping them in the dark.

Approximately 155,000 households in the Brazilian Amazon still do not have access to electricity, largely due to the difficulty in transporting mains power to such isolated, inaccessible locations. In the past, providing electricity to rural communities has been achieved by using small off-grid diesel generators. A better approach could be to use the rainforest itself.

The Amazon is a potentially enormous source of renewable energy. So far this source has remained largely untapped. But a decade-long trial of renewable technologies in Brazil’s rural north suggests that green power could be the way forward for Amazonians without power.

One source of renewable energy is the Amazon river itself. With more than 1000 tributaries, it occupies the largest river basin on Earth, and carries some 209 million liters (55 million gallons) of water each second. Unsurprisingly, hydroelectricity is being investigated as a way to bring power to the region. Over the past ten years, four “microhydro” river turbines have been installed in four tributaries of the Amazon in northern Brazil. They managed to generate enough electricity to power between 36 and 50 households each.

The study found that, not only are these renewable energy sources feasible for the Brazilian Amazon, but they could be several times more economic than burning [non-biofuel] diesel

At the coastal reaches of the Amazon, the strong Atlantic winds can also be used to generate clean power. In the last few years, several hybrid wind-solar generators have been installed, and were able to power between 89 and 170 households each.

Given the abundance of life in the Amazon, it’s not surprising that biofuels are also being considered as a power source. Palm oil, already widely cultivated in the region, can be used to make biodiesel. Transportation costs mean that conventional (fossil) diesel can be twice as expensive in rural areas as elsewhere in Brazil. Since biodiesel can be produced in situ, it offers a much cheaper alternative. Small “palmdiesel” factories have recently been tested in several sites in northern Brazil, and managed to handle the power demands of communities of up to 5,000 people.

The study cited earlier found that, not only are these renewable energy sources feasible for the Brazilian Amazon, but they could be “several times more economic than burning [non-biofuel] diesel.” Since 2003, the Brazilian government has been conducting a program called “Luz Para Todos” (“Light For All”), designed to bring electricity to every Brazilian citizen. Since then, more than 14 million people have benefited. To bring light to the last few Brazilians still in the dark, it might help to turn to the jungle.

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.