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Alternative Energy in 21st Century Brazil

June 21, 2017

About Me

Brian Paonessa is a rising second year mechanical engineering student. His areas of interest include aerospace and alternative energy. At school, he is involved with AIAA and NUHOC. Outside of engineering Brian enjoys soccer and playing saxophone in his community band. 

Alternative Energy in 21st Century Brazil

The Itaipu Dam

The Parana river is the second largest river in South America, running for over 3000 miles through Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and becomes a natural border between the latter two at times. In the 1960’s Brazil and Paraguay began discussions to harness the power of this river in a joint effort, and in 2007 the Itaipu Dam was officially finished, becoming one of the largest sustainable energy projects in history. We were lucky enough to be able to take a comprehensive tour of this wonder of engineering during our Dialogue to Brazil.

The Itaipu Dam

The word Itaipu means “sounding rock,” and it is clear why when you hear millions of gallons of water rushing down the spillway. Our tour guide told us the spillway is only usually open about 30 days per year when the water levels get too high, and luckily this was the case when we visited. We also learned that the dam set a world record in 2016 for producing over 100,000,000 megawatt hours of energy. Technically, the Three Gorges Dam in China is bigger than Itaipu, but it has not been able to operate at full capacity yet.

Our Dialogue in front of the Spillway

On our tour, we got to see inside the dam as well. As soon as we entered, it felt as if we were in a small, constant earthquake due to the power of the water flow. We could also see how the concrete of the dam moved over time and how they had to account for this in the construction. We could also see command centers, where 2 members of staff were Brazilian, 2 were Paraguayan, and a supervisor of alternating nationality took every other shift, with the room split in half between the two countries borders as well.  Our guide told us how this was only for show and that both groups work together, but it was a cool visualization of the way two separate countries came together. 

The command center,
with the far end of the room
being in Paraguay, and the
close side being in Brazil

To get deeper in the dam, we took elevators with the “floors” being labeled only by meters above sea level. Finally, we made it to a part of a generator, where it was so loud we could barely hear our guide talk, even through headphones and radios.

Not all went smoothly with the dam, however. The energy output is split between Brazil and Paraguay, and these countries operate in different frequencies. The Brazilian frequency is 60Hz, and after the energy gets pumped to Brazil the other half of the energy gets converted to 50Hz. Brazil tried to get Paraguay to switch to 60Hz when they were negotiating the dam, but it was deemed too expensive to implement, so the additional step in harnessing the energy was necessitated. 

Part of the Generator Core

The other large issues with dams is environmental. A reservoir must be created when constructing a dam, which requires the flooding of a large area. In the case of the Itaipu Dam, an entire waterfall was destroyed to make room. The Guaira Falls were supposedly even more amazing than the famous Iguacu Falls, and simply no longer exist because of the dam. The dam provides electricity for tons of people throughout Brazil and Paraguay, but there is always a cost for this energy. With hydropower dams facing increased controversy in Brazil in areas of the Amazon, the future of this form of renewable energy remains uncertain.

Iguazu falls, by some accounts inferior to
the falls destroyed when creating the dam