60 percent of Brazil’s energy comes from hydroelectric plants, but some, like the Balbina Dam, negatively impacted the environment. The Balbina Dam flooded around 930 miles of the Amazon rainforest, putting mammals, birds, and tortoises at risk. Worse, the dam doesn’t work as intended and generates just a fifth of its potential output. According to the International Rivers organization, the dam “emits more greenhouse gases than a coal-fired power plant.” Now the country is trying to redeem this failed hydroelectric dam – through solar power.
Balbina Dam produces only about 50 megawatts of energy, although it is supposed to generate 250 megawatts. In addition, Brazil’s drought hasn’t helped matters; lower water levels mean the hydroelectric dams can’t produce as much power even if they were environmentally friendly. Eduardo Braga, Brazil’s Energy and Mining Minster, said “This is one of the biggest environmental crimes that engineering has committed in this country.”
Brazilian environmental sciences professor Carlos Peres said, “We’re watching extinction unfold right in front of us.”
Engineers may not be able to undo the past, but they are going to try and salvage the hydroelectric dam for a new purpose. They’re building a floating solar panel installation which will be the size of about five football fields. The system will connect with the existing dam infrastructure to provide power, and initially the project would provide about five megawatts, or enough energy for 9,000 families.
As they study the efficiency of the panels, they hope to increase the output to 300 megawatts to generate power for 540,000 families. The engineers also hope that the floating solar panels will lower utility bills for the local residents.
Balbina isn’t the only dam to receive the solar treatment: nearly 5,000 kilometers away, a dam in Bahia will also test the proposed solar panel system. The climates in the two areas are radically different – Balbina is very humid – so engineers will be able to compare their productivity and improve the output of the hybrid systems. The project should be complete by 2017.