Chinese solar company will light up 2016 Olympic Games

Drop in price of generation makes solar an attractive option for struggling Brazil

There can be few more iconic images to put on your business card: the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. For Chinese solar energy company Yingli Green, this was their debut on the world stage – lighting the venue which not only hosted the World Cup final but that will also stage the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games.

The company supplied 1,552 solar panels for the stadium and also sponsored the event. The solar panels generate 390 kilowatts (KW) of clean energy for the Maracanã, sparing the atmosphere some 2,560 tons of carbon dioxide (CO²) emissions compared to energy generated by non-renewables. “We aim to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and hold a low- carbon Olympics, leaving a green legacy for Brazil,” said Tania Braga, Head of the Rio 2016 Committee on Sustainability, Accessibility and Legacy.

In addition to their flagship contract, Yingli Green has now signed an agreement to supply microgeneration projects in Brazil and works with the Brazilian startup SolarGrid, which is set to install 200 panels by the end of this year.

Yingli’s entry into Brazil, along with companies looking to develop its wind power capabilities, demonstrates the low-carbon potential of China’s economic engagement with Latin America. And it is not the only solar company looking to capitalise on the favourable conditions for suppliers and investors in Brazil. Jinko Solar is also aiming to add much needed capacity and to increase the share of solar in Brazil’s energy mix.  

Solar energy is seen as a supplementary energy source that can reduce the effects of shortages in the dry season, especially in northeastern Brazil, when the effects of Brazil’s reliance on hydropower are most acutely felt. Shortages are driving up energy prices for consumers while the spectre of rationing is also looming.

According to Rodrigo Lopes Sauaia, the president of the Association of Brazilian Photovoltaic Solar Energy (Absolar), solar has “new potential to kickstart the local and national economies and also attracts a production chain to the region.”

The Brazilian government is already mobilizing to increase energy supply and acknowledges that this is an auspicious moment for solar power. According to Minister of Mines and Energy, Eduardo Braga, the country will launch a pilot project to install solar panels on floats positioned in a section of the Balbina hydroelectric reservoir in Amazonas state, northern Brazil.

Balbina has a very large flooded area (over 2,000 square kilometers) in relation to its installed capacity of 250 MW. According to Braga, the solar project will have the capacity to produce an additional 350 MW.

Braga says that a study commissioned by the ministry indicates that just 10% of the reservoirs in southeastern Brazil have the potential to produce as much as 15,000 MW through the floating panels scheme. The Belo Monte dam, a massive hydroelectric project currently under construction in the north of the country, is expected to produce 11,233 MW.

Last year, the first energy auction in Brazil featuring solar energy offered contracts for 31 plants, with a combined installed capacity of around 1,000 MW peak. MW peak (MWp) is a unit of measurement unique to solar energy measuring the cumulative peak capacity of all modules in a solar power plant.

In 2013, the American consulting firm IHS Solarbuzz estimated that more than 6,000 MWp were registered with regulatory agencies and state-owned energy agencies in Latin America. Chile was the leading player in the field with about half the total amount. Entrepreneurs identified the Atacama desert as one of the best sites in the world for photovoltaic generation given the space and long hours of solar irradiation.

The high level of interest in solar energy is partially attributable to the drop in the price of generation, which was calculated at US$ 320 per megawatt hour (MWh) in 2009 and fell to an average price of US$ 150 in 2012; prices have continued to drop in the years since, and have settled at around US$ 100. More recent data indicates that the total installed area of solar panels in Brazil reached 9.8 million square meters in 2013.

Solar companies are also making an effort to expand microgeneration, especially for heating water. Amaurício Lúcio Gomes, Vice President of Institutional Relations of Abrava, which represents companies selling solar energy systems for water heating, says that an official program for rational energy use (Procel), estimates that 7% of all electricity consumed in the country is used to power electric showers.