Belo Monte Hydro Plant Stunned, Revived Again

Legal battles to stall the 11-GW Belo Monte hydroelectric dam—being built on the Xingu River in the Amazon forest for one of the world’s largest power plants—are raging on in Brazil (Figure 1).

belo monte

1. Dammed. The 11.2-GW Belo Monte hydropower project under construction on the Xingu River in Brazil has been in the midst of ongoing legal battles. This photo was taken at the project site in June 2015. Courtesy: Naiara Pontes/Secretaria-Geral da Presidência da República

In January, just weeks before the mammoth plant was due to test its first turbines, a judge in the federal court in Altamira, a city in Brazil’s northern state of Pará, suspended the dam’s license and levied a $226,000 fine against its owner, Norte Energia—a consortium of 18 partners that includes parastatal power utility Eletrobrás and its subsidiary Eletronorte. The consortium failed to support a plan to protect affected indigenous Indian groups, the court ruled. Later that month, however, a higher federal court revoked the injunction, though no reason was made public. Reuters reported the injunction had been lifted based on a tweet from Brazil’s Energy Ministry on January 27.

The project, which will feature 20 Francis turbines along with seven supplemental bulb turbines, has been fraught with troubles since it was proposed in 1975. Reports suggest that the project’s output will be much less than planned because its original reservoir has been greatly reduced at the request of native groups and environmentalists. Meanwhile, it has seen crippling delays owing to frequent protests since the government granted environmental approval for the project in February 2010, including the much-publicized occupation of one of the dam’s construction sites by local tribes and other opponents in 2012. The dam is now expected to be fully operational by 2019.

Though afflicted by drought, Brazil is facing critical power shortages, and its government is pushing on with the project—and other controversial projects in the Amazon. Later this year, it will consider approving a series of two or more hydro plants on the Tapajos River.

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor.