There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, as the song has it – and an awful lot of sunshine too, offering huge solar power potential. But the government seems reluctant to develop it.

Brazil’s official energy policy, outlined in its recently published Ten Year Energy Plan 2026, still gives priority to hydropower and fossil fuels. Renewables are expected to provide about 160 GW by 2026, with solar accounting for just short of 10 GW. In 2016 a promised auction, planned to invite bids from solar companies to supply energy, was cancelled.

The government’s explanation for neglecting solar in this way is the high cost of implementing projects. Yet new studies show that in many countries solar energy is now cheaper than other renewables and, in some, cheaper than coal and oil. In some it is even the cheapest source of energy.

So while the government rushed through a bill to provide multi-billion dollar tax relief for oil companies, no incentives are contemplated for renewables. To make up the expected shortfall in energy once the economy, now in recession, kicks off again, more coal-fired generating plants are seen as the answer, even though that would mean an increase in CO2 emissions.

In spite of this lack of government enthusiasm, the year-round high levels of sunlight in Brazil’s north-east region are beginning to attract private companies. In the dry, sunbaked state of Piauí the largest solar energy farm in Latin America has just been opened.

Built by an Italian multinational, Enel Green Power, at a cost of US$300 million, the Nova Olinda farm has 930,000 PV panels covering an area of 690 hectares. With an installed capacity of 292MW, it has the potential to produce 600MW, enough to power 300,000 homes.

Enel, launched in 2008 to produce renewable energy, has projects in nine other Latin American countries, as well as the USA, Canada, India, South Africa and six European countries.

Piaui is one of Brazil’s poorest states, and the project also offers jobs, training and recycling workshops to the local community. It is providing the PV panels for the first solar-powered itinerant cinema, CineSolar, packed into a van which travels around rural communities, where many homes are still lit by oil lamps, to stage open-air shows.

Brazil boasts one of the cleanest energy mixes in the world, with 76% coming from renewable sources. But 66% of this is from hydropower, mainly from a network of giant dams, many of them in the Amazon.

The devastating droughts of recent years, which dramatically reduced river levels and left reservoirs so low they could not power the turbines, showed the danger of depending so heavily on a single source.

The government’s reluctance to invest in solar energy flies in the face of mounting evidence of its rapidly plunging cost. A review at the end of 2016 for Bloomberg New Energy Finance concluded that solar power was “efficient, viable and profitable”.

It found that investment in sustainable sources is steadily increasing, in both developed and emerging countries, with investment in the southern hemisphere beginning to outstrip that in the north – in 2016 it was US$154 billion against US$153 $billion in OECD countries. China accounted for the biggest investment.

The growth in solar is happening largely because of this fall in cost and the development of new, more accessible technologies. The 2015 Paris Agreement also encouraged signatories to seek cleaner sources of energy and so reduce their CO2 emissions.

Yet it is not all plain sailing for solar energy. The Bloomberg study warned that some countries now face difficulties in integrating solar energy produced by the new plants into the electricity distribution network.

In some cases the companies which control the grid give priority to the energy generated by fossil fuels over renewables.

The age of solar power is dawning, but there are still battles to be fought against the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry.

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