Climate and Energy

Belo Monte power lines will clear extensive vegetation

2,000km transmission line aims to navigate sensitive biomes and complex environmental laws

Constructing the first of two giant transmission lines transporting electricity from the Belo Monte hydroelectric project, northern Brazil, to a sub-station 2,100 kilometres away will clear areas of native vegetation equivalent to 1,700 football pitches in Brazil’s Amazon and Cerrado Savannah.

State Grid, China’s largest state-owned electric utility – which has become a major player in Brazil’s electricity generation and distribution sectors since arriving in the country in 2010 – will construct the lines, the first of which will travel from the hydroelectric project in the Amazonian state of Pará to Ibiraci in Minas Gerais state in the power-hungry South East.

Once fully operational, Belo Monte will become the world’s third largest dam with an installed capacity of 11,200 megawatts. The project, which has been beset by delays and controversies over its impacts on the ecology of the Xingu river and indigenous communities, began generating power for commercial use earlier this year.  It is expected to be fully online in 2019.

According to the impact study for the first transmission line, 1,725 hectares of native vegetation in Brazil’s two largest biomes will be lost during its construction, the majority of which (1,016 hectares) is from the Cerrado Savannah. The Amazon will lose 709 hectares of native vegetation. The line also runs close to 10 separate conservation areas, three of which are federally protected.

The second line will be 2,500 kilometres in length and will deliver power to the city of Rio de Janeiro. Environmental studies for this second line do not mention how much vegetation will have to be cleared in order to erect the transmission towers.

But the project has its own environmental advantages, according to Belo Monte Transmissora da Energia (BMTE), a State Grid majority-owned company established specifically for the project. The project will use ultra-high-voltage technology to transmit both AC and DC circuits of 800 kilovolts (kV).

This means electricity can be transported over longer distances while minimising transmission losses, meaning supplementary generation projects are not required and secondary impacts are avoided, according to Newton Zerbini, BMTE’s environmental director.

As it requires fewer transmission towers, this Chinese technology should also result in fewer impacts on the ground. However, the task of factoring these into the project’s design has been mostly left to local Brazilian consultancies.


Brazil has complex environmental legislation, comprising over 20,000 standards. Navigating this legal framework is a difficult task for foreign investors, who often see them as cumbersome and an impediment to economic development. The level of environmental regulation in Brazil has come into sharp focus since Michel Temer was confirmed as impeached former president Dilma Rousseff’s replacement on September 1.

Temer’s new cabinet includes members of powerful agribusiness lobbies, who have long argued for an end to environmental licensing. Environmentalists say that the approval of a proposed legal amendment (known as PEC 65/2012) will mean infrastructure projects could get the green light irrespective of their social or environmental impacts.

The environmental licensing process for energy projects in Brazil can cause delays that last for years. The licensing process for both Belo Monte transmission lines, however, was relatively swift.

“They obtained the preliminary licensing in six months,” says Cláudia Barros energy coordinator at the Brazilian Institute of the Environment’s (IBAMA) energy licensing board. Barros told Diálogo Chino that one of the reasons for this is that it did not require complementary projects.

The process of obtaining the license for the second line, included State Grid Brasil president Cai Honxgian personally visiting IBAMA last year to discuss their application, delays to which the company sees as a major risk to projects. State Grid hired Concremat Ambiental to conduct the environmental impact studies.

Zerbini, who sits on joint board meetings on environmental issues with Chinese directors said they find it difficult to comprehend Brazil’s regulations. “Things are very different in their country,” he told Diálogo Chino.

According to Ênio Fonseca, president of the Environmental Forum of the Electricity Sector (FMASE), Chinese companies operating in Brazil prefer to delegate environmental issues to local partners. “If they don’t have their own staff with the appropriate competencies, they have the resources to hire companies that specialise in these matters,” he said.

State Grid is an important player in Brazil and now controls over 10,000 kilometres of transmission lines having recently acquired a 23% stake in CPFL Energia, one of the country’s largest energy generation, distribution, and sales companies.

Social problems

In Uruaçu, a settlement of 40,000 people in the Goiás countryside, BMTE has built accommodation for the transmission line’s workforce just a few kilometres from the city centre. The project has created many jobs for the locals, but has also raised social concerns as three brothels have sprung up less than 20 metres from worker’s housing. Thiago César Meireles, Uruaçu’s secretary for the environment says this is normal.

“Wherever there is a large population of men, this type of trade opens. The workers live in houses with 10, sometimes 50 men. When they get paid, they want to relax,” said Meireles, who also acknowledged the project’s environmental impacts.

Diálogo Chino contacted State Grid for this article, but the company did not answer questions submitted by e-mail. On the company’s website, the section that addresses the environmental issues of the projects is “under construction”.