By Ashlyn White, Policy Intern
Hosting the Olympic Games is a daunting task for any country to take on. Infrastructure improvements, massive building projects, and logistical planning of where everything and everyone are going to go are just a few of the things that need to be worked out during the preparation stages. Another critical component is figuring out how the Games will be powered. Every single stadium, venue, and building within the Olympic Village, along with the International Broadcast Center, need reliable energy to ensure the Games run smoothly. This is in addition to the increased energy needs of the many spectators, which include things like transportation to and from the venues. For Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games have been a source of serious controversy in many areas, including the strains it will have on the country’s energy supply.
Hydropower is the main source of Brazilian electricity and accounts for 70 percent of the country’s production. Unfortunately, Brazil is in the middle of a serious drought, which has impacts on the country’s ability to produce enough hydropower to meet the needs of everyday citizens and will severely strain the grid’s ability to support the Games. The Brazilian energy crisis has led to serious cutbacks, including cutting the power to people’s homes and businesses for extended periods at a time. Still, Brazil’s goal is to keep as much of the Games on the grid as possible to take advantage of the country’s available renewable energy capacity. However, Rio suffers from rolling blackouts as a result of low energy production, and the back-up strategy will rely on diesel-powered generators, as it is too late to build the solar energy infrastructure that was originally planned. Brazil faced similar problems when it hosted the World Cup in 2014, and the government spent $5 billion to subsidize fossil fuel generators as a result.
While Rio is not unique in failing to deliver on its environmental promises compared to previous Olympic host cities, it is certainly disappointing. Rio had promised to host the “Green Games for a Blue Planet” by using clean energy, upgrading low income neighborhoods, preserving natural spaces, and significantly improving public transportation to clear up the streets and control smog. As with many previous Olympic host cities, budget constraints and poor planning are to blame when these ambitious environmental and energy projects get cut. Jay Coakley of the University of Colorado studies the impacts of massive events like the Olympics, and as he explained in an interview with The Atlantic, “if money hasn’t been allocated up front, what can happen is a city or region goes so deeply into debt and there’s so little money or energy left to complete those projects.” Rio itself fell victim to this in 2014 when they hosted the World Cup. For example, the committee in charge of organizing the World Cup never broke ground on a proposed high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio that was meant to reduce vehicle emissions, nor did they ever put up the solar panels that were meant to power the various stadiums.
With only a little over a week to go until the Games’ Opening Ceremonies and dozens of very major problems left to be solved, it is clear that whatever renewable energy goals Rio’s Olympic Committee had at the outset will not come to fruition now. Looking ahead, Pyeongchang and Tokyo are looking much more likely to deliver more environmentally friendly Olympic Games that use renewable energy technology. For example, Pyeongchang plans to power their 2018 Winter Olympic Games with 100 percent renewable energy from new and existing power plants that rely on solar and geothermal energy. While this is a lofty goal, they are already well set up to meet it, considering they currently have the capabilities to generate 145 MW out of the 190 MW of capacity that will be needed to power the Games. Further, they have plans to erect a number of wind farms to generate 100 percent renewable energy and to develop their electric transportation infrastructure, all by 2017. Tokyo also has big goals for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and plans to power their Olympic Stadium with solar power, install a rainwater retention system, and build the Olympic Village to utilize renewable energy systems like solar, seawater heat pumps, and biogas power generated from food waste. While there are several years to go between now and the Pyeongchang and Tokyo Games and anything could happen to derail their plans, it seems that both cities have looked to the disappointments of Rio and are being much more proactive in their renewable energy and sustainability goals.