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This month’s interview: Roberto Kishinami

This month’s interview: Roberto Kishinami

Energy planning in Brazil must lead to socio-environmental development

Brazil’s electricity matrix is cleaner than most countries, but the share of fossil fuels has increased. Nevertheless, according to physicist Roberto Kishinami, a specialist in environment and energy, there are sufficient sources of renewable energy to project the country to a low-carbon economy and contribute to a reduction in the income gap amongst people in Brazilian regions. To this end, the coordinator of the Power Portfolio of the Institute for Climate and Society (iCS) emphasizes that it is necessary to invest in research and education. “A State policy is needed for the transition to happen in a way that benefits the population. Anything else would be unacceptable. In the Paris Accord, this planning is the long-term strategy, but we have yet to define a path.”

Escolhas – We are constantly hearing that the Brazilian electricity matrix is clean. Is this true?

Roberto Kishinami – Approximately 63% of Brazil’s energy matrix is supplied by hydroelectricity, but thirty years ago this figure reached 92% of the electricity consumed. The Brazilian matrix is shifting to a more diverse composition, and today about 20% comes from fossil fuels. The share of renewables is still higher than in most of the world, but the fossil fuel share is growing. We want to change this trend so that by 2050 we have a more diverse, more renewable matrix.

Escolhas – Is it possible to reconcile this trend change with the development of the country?

Kishinami – From the climatic point of view, the problem is the growth in the share of fossil fuel in the electricity matrix. However, we must combine this change with the country’s development strategy, in aspects such as social differences, where we have a very large gap between high and low income and a poor regional distribution.

Escolhas – How can this be done?

Kishinami – Ideally, the use of energy sources should be linked to socio-environmental development projects. For example, the Northeast has seen large growth in wind power plants. We have 10 gigawatts (GW) of installed wind capacity in Brazil (out of 150 GW) and these wind farms are concentrated in the Northeast (there is still about 1 GW in Rio Grande do Sul). Most wind power sources are installed on land that is leased, but leasing can have many forms. It can be an area that is fenced off and permits no other activity, or it can follow the European standard, which pays for use of the area but without impeding the agricultural exploitation. The difference is to promote, in the long term, regional production with income generation, or to favor patrimonialism, which has predominated in Brazil. To do this, it is necessary to change the way public policy is carried out and to have greater local involvement.

Escolhas – Brazil’s commitment to the Climate Convention, under the Paris Agreement, is to increase the sustainable use of renewable energy, excluding hydroelectric energy, to at least 23% of Brazil’s electricity generation by 2030. Is this target feasible?

Kishinami – It’s an easy goal to fulfill. The Brazilian electricity matrix already comprises 23% to 24% of renewables. The issue is to connect energy goals with the goals and objectives of sustainable development, which are also part of the Paris Agreement. Returning to the example of wind power, in addition to land leasing, wind power production could contribute to the rural development of the municipalities. A share of the revenue, 0.5% for example, could be set aside for such programs or for education, which is a key factor for overcoming inequalities in the country. This also applies to solar, biomass and hydroelectric power. What we lack is an integrative vision of energy within society.

Escolhas – Besides electricity, fuels are also part of the Brazilian energy matrix. How can the country advance in relation to emissions reduction in this area?

Kishinami – Fuels are used to move things and people. But vehicles can be electric or burn fuel. Electric motors are more efficient, as these can produce more movement for less energy. The electric motor converts 90% of the energy into motion (losing only 10%). With internal combustion engines, the yield, that which is converted into motion, reaches a maximum of 20%. The rest is energy released as heat, noise and pollution. It is obvious that the 90% path is preferable. It is inevitable that transport will increasingly adopt more forms of electric motor. The question is where does the electricity come from – which needs to be from clean and safe sources.

Escolhas – Isn’t ethanol an alternative to fossil fuels?

Kishinami – Ethanol is important and significant. Brazil produces 30 billion liters/year, second only to the USA in world production. In addition, Brazilian ethanol has an advantage in terms of carbon. The USA’s production is derived from corn, which needs to be cooked to release starch to produce ethanol, and this process emits carbon. Sugarcane does not need this process. Biofuels are important for the transition because they emit less greenhouse gases than oil, but both have low energy yields.

Escolhas – Could Brazil produce enough clean electricity to replace fossil fuels?

Kishinami – The country has sufficient sources to produce electricity from solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric. The difficulty is not a shortage of sources, but the decision about which way we will go in the long term. Changes involve jobs that disappear (the oil industry employs a lot of people) and others that do not exist today, but will be needed. All of this needs training and education that does not exist today. A State policy is needed for the transition to happen in a way that the benefits the population. Anything else would be unacceptable. In the Paris Accord, this planning is the long-term strategy, but we have yet to define a path.

Escolhas – What are the risks in not investing in this transition and what is needed to make it happen?

Kishinami – The climate is already changing but we do not know how this is happening in different locations in the territory. Brazil is very big. In the North, the changes will be different to the South. Overcoming this lack of knowledge would require investment in science and technology. We should have more sensors, more research centers tracking and identifying new indicators. A better understanding of the problem would allow the energy sector to create adaptation programs and estimate, for example, the risks from hydroelectric dams in the Amazon. In addition, Brazil needs to move forward in energy economics. Research the relationships between different sources and consumption models, which would allow better projections for possible transition paths. By 2100, we need to shift the entire economy to what is generally referred to as the low-carbon economy. There are several ways to do this, from the chaotic, to every man for himself, to the most organized, all of which requires know-how. Understanding the cost and energy economics, and its relation to development, is essential for Brazil, yet we are still somewhat blind to the future because of short-term preoccupations such as the political crisis and the fiscal deficit.