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Alternative Energy in 21st Century Brazil

August 10, 2016

Pictured above on the left in the black Northeastern shirt.

About Me

Evan Martin is a rising fourth year mechanical engineering student who has previously co-oped at Textron Defense Systems and Raytheon Company. His areas of interests include the fields of aerospace and defense, space exploration, and alternative energy. At school he is involved with AIAA, ASME and intramural sports. Outside of engineering Evan enjoys baseball, golf, and piano.

Alternative Energy in 21st Century Brazil - How Sao Paulo is Leading the Renewable Energy Movement

Brazil is an amazing place to study abroad, with scenery, food, and experiences that are difficult to replicate in the United States. As a culture, Brazil in many ways lacks its own identity – much of its customs are a combination of Portuguese, African, and North American traditions – all of which intertwine into a unique society. Over the past month, we’ve learned to samba, salsa, and even taken a capoeira class. We’ve taken a crash course of Portuguese in order to navigate Uber’s and order food, and applied culture class discussions first hand by attending a fútbol game. Although all are integral to Brazil’s character, none of these aspects are its alone, as all have their roots somewhere else throughout the world. However, one attribute where Brazil is unmatched worldwide is the field of renewable energy, making it the perfect destination to learn how these ideas move from theoretical concepts to powering the world’s fifth largest nation.

Alternative energy is one of the hottest topics in the world today. As fossil fuels deplete around the globe, governments are searching for new answers to power society in the not so distant future. It’s estimated that we have decades of energy available in coal, oil and natural gas, but in order to ensure a smooth transition to completely renewable sources, the development must begin now. Brazil is an interesting country to study this, as a developing nation with no shortage of available natural resources in solar, hydro, biofuels, and wind. The state of São Paulo, and Brazil as a whole, is a world leader in renewable energy and is creating the blueprint for sustainable cities.

Worldwide, 81% of power comes from fossil fuels, with 14% from renewables and the remaining 5% from nuclear. Within the state of São Paulo, only 42% of power is from fossil fuels, with a staggering 58% percent resulting from alternative sources. Out of the total energy supply, 64% is imported, while 36% is generated in-state. Biomass is responsible for nearly 70% of this domestically generated power. These numbers, given to us during our visit with São Paulo’s Secretary of Energy Joao Carlos Meirelles, truly show the extent of which Brazil has committed to alternative energy. In addition, São Paulo has the goal of becoming completely fossil fuel independent within 25 years.

We’ve had the opportunity to see many of these alternative energy power plants in operation during our dialog. CPFL, a futuristic looking power plant located slightly north of the city, gave us a tour of their solar farm. This particular farm was primarily research based, as it was only around 2.5 acres in total area. Solar power utilizes the sun’s energy to excite electrons (primarily silicon based cells), causing them to escape their nuclear orbitals and feeding these particles through wires to a generator, creating a current. Since most commercial solar panels have an efficiency of around 10%, it takes an enormous operation for solar to make a sizeable contribution to a large populations energy demands (this particular plant generated 1.1 MW of power from solar sources, slightly less than 1 GWh over the course of a year). The United States, for example, uses around 40 Million GWh of power annually. To convert the US to completely renewable solar energy, we would need over 11,200,000 acres of solar panels, spread across the southwest of the US (Connecticut is 3,500,000 acres, to give you an idea).

Our next trip was to the Henry Borden hydroelectric power plant in Cubatão. The facility was located deep in the mountains, surrounded by the rainforest and waterfalls through a winding cliff-sided highway. The plant consisted of two separate portions, with an external operation generating power above ground, and a subterranean internal operation, located deep in a cave below the facility. Hydro power utilizes water flow to spin huge turbines, which in turn spin a copper coil through a magnetic field, creating a current and generating electricity. The Henry Borden power plant has the capacity to generate 900 MW of power at peak capacity, a stark contrast to the solar field mentioned earlier. Hydropower is an incredibly useful resource, but its use limited to very specific areas and conditions.

Due to Brazil’s tropical climate, sugarcane is a major crop in the country’s northern and mid regions. Agriculture is a large portion of Brazil’s economy, with sugar and ethanol production leading the way. Tonon Bioenergy, our third power plant visit, was one such plant that produces these products, located in the northern portion of the state, surrounded by endless crop fields and livestock. Once the sugarcane is harvested from the fields, the juice must be extracted from the plant, which is a four step crushing process. This first step yields nearly 70% of the sugarcane juice, while the additional three steps are needed to extract the remaining 30%, leaving bagasse (the dry, organic remnants). The bagasse is then sent to a boiler, where the organic material is burned in order to boil water, creating steam, and ultimately powering a turbine. This electricity is used to completely power the plant, with any excess power being sold back to the grid (which in this case is around 40 MW). The collected sugarcane juice is fermented and distilled, which is then separated into two groups: One which is further processed into ethanol, while the rest is made into the sugar products we use on a daily basis.

Everyone loves to talk about going green, but it’s difficult to change the lifestyles of a population. São Paulo truly is a world leader in alternative energy technology, creating the road map for the rest of humanity in the effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. This is not a simple change to implement on a large scale, as it’s difficult to adjust the mindset of a population in favor of power that is more expensive, and whose ecological impact is largely unseen to the public eye. There is no one answer to the impending energy crisis, but by continuing to implement these alternative sources worldwide, the transition to a fossil fuel-free society might not be as bad. Solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and additionally nuclear, off-shore wind, geothermal, and tidal powers may very well be able to someday make up for our coal, oil, and natural gas dependencies, but only through clever politics and efficient geological planning. Fossil fuels are cheap and incredibly power-dense, while alternative sources are largely expensive and comparatively generate much less. Political entities must develop creative programs and incentives in order to motivate citizens to embrace the renewable movement, and São Paulo has done just that. I greatly respect the focus that Secretary Meirelles and his team have put on this issue, and hope that other nations will follow this blueprint in the future. With a goal of being completely fossil fuel independent in 25 years, São Paulo is proving that it can be done - we just need to pull the trigger.