The Brazilian government has missed a key deadline to secure a deal for environmentally friendly energy for the 2016 Rio Olympics. If no agreement is reached, Olympics organizers say they will have to use diesel generators, notorious for high emissions, to power the entire two-week event.
In its original proposal to the International Olympic Committee, organizers promoted the sustainability of Rio's existing power grid. Around 85 percent of Brazilian electricity comes from renewable sources, mainly hydro-power, according to a Rio 2016 sustainability report published last year. "Therefore, our target is to use as much grid energy as possible," wrote the organizers in the report. "Rio 2016 has been working with the Rio de Janeiro electrical utility provider to provide the base power-supply capacity and primary back-up power to our key venues with energy from the grid."
That utility company, Light, and the federal government missed a self-imposed Oct. 31 deadline to sign a deal to power the games, and in a recent meeting with officials from the International Olympic Committee, organizers were pressed to come up with an alternative. Typically, games use generators for temporary venues and for the International Broadcast Center. Rio 2016’s backup plan is to use generators throughout the event.
"It’s good for a Plan B, but it’s not good enough for Plan A,” said Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada. "We’d rather stick to the Plan A."
Diesel backup generators generate emissions at rates similar to or higher than those from the highest emitting natural gas-fired generators, according to researchers at Cornell University. "It's very surprising that they would even consider this," said Max Zhang, who studies air pollution in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department at the university. Air pollution from too many generators could leave athletes and tourists sputtering, he added.
Light, Rio’s electrical utility, said a deal isn’t in place and declined to comment further. A spokesman for the sports ministry insisted that the government will find a solution for the games.
The difficulties in Rio offer a stark contrast with the 2012 London Games, which signed a deal with EDF Energy five years before the event and which, two years in advance, set up an energy center inside the Olympic Park. Although London received praise for its sustainability efforts, the independent environmental watchdog established to monitor the games still criticized an overuse of generators in some areas. London used 373 temporary generators for the Olympics and the Paralympics that followed.
The IOC said it has spoken with Ricardo Leyser, executive secretary at Brazil’s Ministry of Sport. "We expect the Brazilian organizers to deliver on their plan for energy provision as it was presented to us during that meeting,” the IOC said in a statement.
Rio organizers are keen to not compare their plans with London’s, highlighting the cultural difference between Brazilians and the British. And last year’s soccer World Cup set a precedent for finalizing projects at the last minute. Even though almost every one of the 12 stadiums used was delivered late and over budget, the tournament was a success.
"We’re going to have energy at the end,” said Andrada, who acknowledged that costs will inevitably rise as the window to the start of the Games closes. "You’re using a logic that is not applicable to this country. We will have energy. Don’t get scared."