Big Hydro Threatens Rainforests

RonaFriedBy RONA FRIED, Ph.D.

When I read news like the June 26 post on that “Renewable energy may supply more electricity than nuclear or natural gas by 2016,” I get excited. But then I realize that will mostly come from big hydro, which I don’t believe should be counted in that mix.

Before Japan’s nuclear meltdown, it looked like the world could be ready for a nuclear renaissance, but it seems we are entering a big hydro renaissance instead.

China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest at 22.5 gigawatts (GW), looks like small potatoes compared to those planned for Africa’s Congo and Brazil’s Amazon.

And China just approved construction of another enormous 20-GW hydroelectric project with a much taller, even more destructive dam than Three Gorges: the Sichuan project. There’s also 7,165 megawatts of hydro planned in Malaysia, which would flood 900 square miles (2,300 square kilometers) of rainforest to build 20 dams.

Brazil rainforest protesters

For the past year, indigenous people in Brazil have
blocked construction of the 11-GW Belo Monte dam.
Photo: Ocupacao Belo Monte


Brazil’s Amazon

Brazil is spending $93 billion on 20 hydropower plants and 34 dams that threaten 2,500 square miles (6,500 square km) of Amazon rainforest. One of those dams, the 11-GW Belo Monte dam, would be the third-largest in the world and is 20 percent complete.

Indigenous people, desperately trying to preserve their home in the rainforest, have blocked further construction for the past year. This one dam would flood 200 square miles (500 square km), causing massive deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions and irreparable damage to the ecosystem, displacing over 20,000 people from 40 ethnic groups. The Xingu River is their lifeline.

According to Common Dreams (, protesters published a letter to the government saying, in part:

“We’re not leaving until you get out of our villages. You have made the fish disappear and you are robbing the bones of our ancestors who are buried on our lands. …

“You are the ones killing us, quickly or slowly. We’re dying,
and with each dam that is built, more of us will die. When we try to talk with you, you bring tanks, helicopters, soldiers, machine guns and stun weapons.”

If the government gets away with building Belo Monte, many are terrified that it will lead to destruction of all the Amazon’s magnificent rivers, which provide one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. “The Amazon would become an endless series of lifeless reservoirs, its life drained away by giant walls of concrete and steel,” says International Rivers (

As for Belo Monte, explosions to divert the river and excavate for the dam foundation have already rendered the Xingu no longer fit to drink. Fish populations are devastated and there is little left to eat.

In Chile, presidential candidates are being asked to formally pledge to keep Patagonia free of dams and invest in renewable energy instead. A major hydro project, HidroAysén, would build five dams in yet another pristine region of Patagonia. It has been stalled for a year because of wide- spread protests.

Africa’s Congo

Now we hear that Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo is working on an even bigger hydro project that would be the largest in the world. Construction of the first phase, the Inga dam on the Congo River, is set to begin in 2015.

This first phase is big enough, at 4.8 GW, but eventually, the Grand Inga project would scale to 40 GW, at a cost of $80 billion — with the capacity to provide electricity to half the African continent at almost twice the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. How much could $80 billion buy in solar and wind energy?

The Congo River is the world’s largest by volume after the Amazon River. The $12 billion initial phase has been held back by lack of financing, but recent support from the World Bank and African Development Bank makes construction more like- ly, and South Africa has agreed to buy almost half the output.

Over the past 40 years, huge hydro projects have been promoted as the solution for bringing electricity to the world’s poorest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because of rampant corruption and mismanagement, dams have been boondoggles. Existing dams run at about a quarter of capacity and 85 percent goes to the mining industry, says Peter Bosshard, policy director of International Rivers.

Grid-based electrification is not a realistic option for most of Africa’s poor. As usual, their thousands of small vil- lages would be much better served by distributed renewable energy and micro hydropower.

Ethiopia has already begun diverting the Blue Nile to begin building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 6-GW project. Egypt, which is downstream and has virtually no other water source, is furious about the secretive project and immediately called for it to stop. The dispute could trigger a war.

Meanwhile, research shows that big hydropower plants can’t operate without intact rainforests, because without them there is less rain to keeps reservoirs full. If deforestation continues, the Belo Monte dam may only deliver one-third of its design capacity. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that rainfall has already fallen 6 to 7 percent because of deforestation related to the Belo Monte construction. Rainfall is expected to drop 11 to 15 percent if estimates of 40 percent deforestation by 2050 are correct, resulting in 35 to 40 percent less power.

How sad that solar, wind and other renewables are classed with these destructive hydro projects.

Rona Fried, Ph.D., is president of, a thought leader on green business known for its daily news and Green Dream Jobs service since 1996.


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One Response to Big Hydro Threatens Rainforests

  1. Daniel Ferra Reply

    December 3, 2013 at 11:25 am

    “When the public is allowed to own–and profit from–renewable energy resources: tens of thousands will show up to protest the coal and utility industry’s attempts to weaken renewable energy policies.

    In Germany, the public is as much of a stakeholder in energy policy as any big energy corporation–because there’s *NO* net-metering or solar-leasing.

    Rather, people are paid a fair price to feed *THEIR* energy into the electric grid.

    Picture: Hardy protesters assembled in Berlin today, in 42°F weather, to protest the new coalition government’s attempts at weakening renewable energy laws.

    This would never ever happen in the United States because the public is *not* a stakeholder in energy production (at least in no meaningful way). We need to change that in the U.S. What do you think ?” Bob Tregilus

    “Tell the PUC: No new dirty gas plants!

    Every year, more than 70,000 California kids are rushed to the hospital because they can’t breathe, due to air pollution in Calfiornia.

    Unfortunately the Governor and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are considering huge new gas-fired power plants to replace the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Dirty gas plants will make our air worse and just aren’t needed.

    We can’t sit by and let our air get dirtier and our kids even sicker, when we’ve got cheaper, cleaner, safer options like Renewable Energy.” Sierra Club

    California, there is enough Residential Solar to power 2.25 San Onofres, couple that with a Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff and we can solve some of these environmental and electrical generating problems.

    The Southwest is in the midst of a record drought, some 14 years in the making, which means the water supply for many Western states – California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada – is drying up. Last month the Bureau of Reclamation announced they’re cutting the flow of water into Lake Mead, which has already lost 100 feet of water since the drought began.

    What happens if the Southwest drought does not end soon?

    Will we keep using 3 to 6 million gallons of Clean Water per Fracked well, to extract natural gas?

    This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State.

    The State of California has mandated that 33% of its Energy come from Renewable Energy by 2020.

    The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

    This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%.

    There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected?

    Another generator of power that jumps out is natural gas, 45.3%, that is a lot of Fracked Wells poisoning our ground water, 3 to 6 million gallons of water are used per well. If Fracking is safe why did Vice Pres Cheney lobby and win Executive, Congressional, and Judicial exemptions from:

    Clean Water Act.

    Safe Drinking Water.

    Act Clean Air Act.

    Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

    Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act.

    National Environmental Policy Act.

    “Americans should not have to accept unsafe drinking water just because natural gas is cheaper than Coal. the Industry has used its political power to escape accountability, leaving the American people unprotected, and no Industry can claim to be part of the solution if it supports exemptions from the basic Laws designed to ensure that we have Clean Water and Clean Air” Natural Resources Defense Council.

    We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our pure clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy.

    The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

    FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
    Photovoltaics (PV)
    Solar thermal
    Fuel cells
    Tidal and wave power.

    There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

    The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

    Commercial Ca. rates are 17 – 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

    Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than -3 cents reduction in kilowatts per hour, for what ever the first tier Residential rate is in you area, for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar . A game changer for the Voting, Tax Paying Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet.

    We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

    Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

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