Brazil and Chile: Combustible Photons vs. Combustible Forests
Brazil’s Amazon is on fire. Last year more than 10,000 square miles, the square mileage of Maryland, were destroyed by human-set fires. To Brazil’s west, in northern Chile, the Atacama Desert is also ablaze. These fires are not, however, the result of human pyrotechnics nor from the figurative flames spreading throughout Chile from anti-government protests. Chile’s fires are the product of the sun’s combustible photons being converted by 10,600 heliostats (sun tracking photo voltaic mirrors) into electrical energy.
While Brazil’s President Bolsonaro’s government encourages cattle ranchers and soy bean farmers to send the lethal CO2 smoke of thousands of indiscriminately burned trees into the atmosphere, the Chilean governments of Michelle Bachelet and her successor, the current Chilean President, Sebastian Piñera, have ignited a renewable solar energy program. The Amazon rainforest evolved over millions of years without fire, meaning that unlike other forests where fire is a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem, the rainforest’s plants and animals lack the necessary adaptations to survive the heat. Rainforests naturally contain high levels of moisture which act as a defense against fire. Deforestation makes the land drier and therefore more susceptible to fire.
The plan "Roadmap to 2050: A Sustainable and Inclusive Strategy", was developed in October 2015 under then President Michelle Bachelet’s Ministry of Energy. It was not merely a hypothetical or aspirational set of goals for renewable energy. It was a set of realistic “shovel ready” proposals to construct renewable energy projects nationwide that would, in short order, stimulate and develop a pathway by which Chile, a country with neither oil nor coal resources, would develop a paradigmatic shift in its energy sector’s renewable energy supplies so that by 2050, 19% of the country's electricity
would be from solar energy, 23% from wind power, and 29% from hydroelectric power.
Remarkably, the incessant push by both progressive and conservative governments’ programs has accelerated the growth rates of renewable energy sources in Chile so dramatically that the Chilean Ministry of Energy now estimates that by 2040 Chile will be able to supply 100 % of its energy needs from renewable sources. To achieve such positive growth of its renewable energy sectors, the Piñera government has promoted public/private sector initiatives such as the congressionally approved Net Billing Law 21.118 incentivizing public sector use of renewable private sector energy sources. Likewise, the Chilean government has invited citizen input on renewables from all sectors of Chilean society, rejecting traditional top down government-led projects. The government has encouraged community participation in developing renewable local-based energy projects.
Through a series of public government workshops as part of its “Ruta Energética: Liderando la modernización con sello ciudadano” (The Energy Route: Moving Towards Modernization with Citizen Input), ecological groups and community activists have participated and contributed to the design and location of renewable energy projects. As part of this project, the Chilean Ministry of Energy established a website (energíaabierta.cne.cl) with the three-pronged goal of providing all Chilean citizens with up-to-date information on current government renewable energy projects, access to all government documents related to such projects, and an open call for innovative citizen solutions, and suggestions to help the government develop and implement the most efficient and long-term solutions to climate change issues for all its citizens. The Chilean government has also robustly stimulated foreign investment, including American, Italian and Spanish capital and technology companies, to finance and build renewable energy projects.
Chile’s public sector is also the first non-United States Western Hemisphere country to develop a cutting edge thermal solar plant. This project, the Cerro Dominador solar thermal plant, online since this June 8th, focuses the sun’s thermal energy from thousands of sunflower-like sun-tracking mirrors on a more than 800 foot tower stationed in the center of a heliostat field. The heliostats, created and manufactured by Array Technologies of Albuquerque, New Mexico, unlike stationary solar panels, track and focus concentrated sunlight on a receiver which sits near the top of the tower. Within the tower, the concentrated sunlight heats molten salt tanks to over 1,000 ° F. This heated molten salt then flows into a thermal storage receptacle where it is efficiently stored and then pumped into a steam generator turning a turbine to generate electricity. This whole process replicates traditional coal-fired power plants’ processes. However, no CO2 pollutants are emitted as the byproduct of this uncomplicated, clean solar energy method.
The electricity produced by the Atacama Desert Cerro Dominador thermal tower, together with the already operational 100 MW photovoltaic plant of more than 390,000 stationary photovoltaic panels (built by the Spanish energy companies Abengoa and Solar Pack), form the first renewable energy complex that addresses the issue that has bedeviled world-wide solar energy projects; that is, not only how to produce solar energy, but how to store it. Cerro Dominador and allied solar energy plants produce electrical energy 24/7, 365 days a year.
While the Chilean government continues to encourage cooperative government solar and renewable energy projects with foreign partners, Brazil’s Bolsonaro advances a strident nationalistic policy through presidential speeches and tweets that bombastically attack foreign governmental participation in addressing deforestation.
Those attacks on foreign actors led the German and Norwegian governments to suspend their multi-million dollar contributions set up
for the development of programs and incentives to combat deforestation.
To further enfeeble Amazonian reforestation projects — domestic and foreign — the Bolsonaro government defunded the National Institute of Environmental Research of the Amazon (Ibama), Brazil’s principal environmental agency. This action left violators unpunished, offered amnesty to illegal loggers and miners, and generally ignored all previous Brazilian governments’ attempts to halt Amazon deforestation Moratorium on Soy to which there were over 80 worldwide private companies as signators to this .
In stark contrast to Chile’s determined push to harness the sun and seek non-renewables to mitigate climate change, Brazil's current governmental response to increasing deforestation heads in the opposite direction. It encourages illegal takeover of public lands, turns a blind eye towards illegal mining, and permits agribusinesses within indigenous territories and protected areas. In addition, the Bolsonaro government has supported infrastructure projects in the rainforest, including the building of new roads, hydroelectric dams, and mining.
Brazil and Chile are following wildly bifurcating paths to address climate change and efficient renewable energy sources to replace coal and oil. Chile’s conservative business-friendly government is leading a science-driven, surprisingly participatory approach to climate change and renewable energy in order to develop broad public programmatic strategies. On the other hand, Brazil’s pro-development-friendly government has chosen to reject science and accept foreign assistance, only if these monies come with no restrictions.
Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, an alliance of 63 civil society organizations, has written that “Bolsonaro and his team are essentially saying ‘If you don’t give us the money, we don’t know what will happen to the Amazon.’ Everyone
knows Bolsonaro is not interested in the climate. He is only interested in using the climate to extort money to use for whatever he wants,
including paying off his friends and supporters.”
Further, the Bolsonaro government rejected and then labeled any attempts by local and outside NGO’s to ameliorate the illegal occupation and deforestation of public lands and replace it with meaningful policies of land reform, as actions by “terrorist organizations.”
Perhaps the only alternative for meaningful reversal of the Bolsonaro government’s policies for national and international organizations is a two-pronged approach -- going around the Federal Brazilian government to create incentives for state governments in Brazil to commit to limiting deforestation; and, at the same time, finding ways to apply economic pressure on the Federal government.
Bolsonaro’s recent rhetorical flourishes directed at France’s President Macron for having touched the third rail of his politics of narrow authoritarian populism by personally accusing him of ecocide must be met instead by looking beyond ad hominem attacks to find “. . . market driven policies of establishing certification and enforcing requirements for the export import market to ensure that products from Brazil are not grown or produced on deforested lands. . . .”
One such far reaching effort has been the December 2019 letter sent to the Bolsonaro government by more than 80 worldwide private companies and investment groups imploring Brazilian officials to maintain in effect the Moratorium on Soy stating that, “Our position is clear: we want to be able to continue to source from, or invest in, the Brazilian soy industry but if the ASM(Amazon Soy Moratorium) is not maintained, this will risk our business with Brazilian soy. Today, there is enough existing agricultural land to continue to increase soy production in the Amazon by an additional 600% compared to current figures. We look forward to supporting Brazilian partners to continue their leadership and show that economic development and environmental protection.”
Such international pressure on the bottom line of Brazil’s export commodity trading companies will be most effective strategy to protect the environmental stability not only of the Amazon but the planet.