Itaipu Dam

Whereas people associate Foz do Iguaçu with the waterfalls featured in the last post, I was actually most excited about the hydroelectric dam just a few miles north of the city. Naturally then, I booked the “special tour” that involved several hours going down into the depths of the electrical generation unit.

I was among friends; everyone here was fascinated by how one dam powers virtually all of Paraguay and 17% of Brazil, a country of 200,000,000 people.

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I know you’re also dying of curiosity about what that model shows, so here it is up close.

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Also in the waiting room were statistics of visitor numbers by country over the past 40 years, which total 20 million.

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Other than the three countries that border the dam (Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina), Germany has the highest number of visitors, beating out countries much closer than it (Chile, Peru, etc) and countries that are much more populous (the US, China, India). I was proud to show my German passport and boost that number by one.

Finally, the waiting room also features a large poster titled “10 steps against corruption”, which is hilarious both because of current events in the Brazilian government, and also because the dam itself is likely a hotbed of corruption since it generates massive revenues compared to costs, so it’s unclear where that money ends up…

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In the actual tour, they begin by citing some statistics over and over, and showing you the outside of the dam. It really made me feel bad for all the people that booked the short tour, that do this part and nothing else. This is more or less the highlight from that part.

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But then, you start descending. First, you see the massive penstocks, which feed water into the generator spirals. As they point out many times, two of these carry about as much water as flows in the Itaipu falls, on average. In other words, the dam rightfully claims that it is about 10 times as impressive as the falls.

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From there, you go inside. First of all, I had a laugh when I saw a serious-looking maintenance worker carrying a massive…pitcher of mate tea. I seriously think he tries to get away with something by having it look like a toolbox.

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When you look down, you get to appreciate the scale of the dam: at over 100 meters, it’s a long drop.

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Then, the control room. This place is just crazy.

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On the left side are the panels for the 10 Brazilian generators, on the right the 10 Paraguayan. The line down the middle is roughly the border. Even though there is an even division of people (50/50 Brazilian/Paraguayan), generators, ownership, etc., by contract, Paraguay only needs two of the units to power most of the country, so they pipe the rest back to Brazil, where they lose about 5% in the process of converting the electricity from 50Hz to 60Hz.

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It took me a little to realize that the guy on the computer, who is skipping the meeting in the picture above this one, is looking at pictures of houses.

As you can see, the control room is only separated by a normal pane of glass from the visitor’s section. This must be really annoying to the operators inside, but also explains one of the strangest dress code rules I’ve seen:

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Little does the public know that the 2009 Brazil and Paraguay Blackout was caused by operator distraction due to a 23-year old Dutch visitor in a mini skirt.

Down an escalator, you arrive on the Gallery floor, where the tops of all 20 generating units are visible in a room 1 kilometer long. In the background, 1 is down for service, and the other 19 are active.

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Then, down an elevator that seems to be randomly numbered.

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The numbers actually represent meters above the base of the dam.

And you arrive at the last, and best part: the spinning turbine shaft.

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Surprisingly, this massive beast spins quite slowly at about 90 revolutions per minute. Still, it alone puts out over 700,000,000 Watts, enough to power the entire state of Vermont.

And then it’s back to the surface. I should note that despite my excitement and the awesome tour, the dam has not been without controversy. The construction alone killed over a hundred people, destroyed the second-largest waterfall in the world, displaced over 10,000 residents, and permanently altered the ecology of the region. Further, despite the fact that they go to great lengths to emphasize the binational aspects of all part of the dam (e.g. 50/50 ownership), Brazilian-Paraguayan relations are far from rosy, and negotiations to renew the governing treaty that expires in 2023 are projected to be difficult.

Nevertheless, I found it an amazing project, and am impressed by how much clean energy is being produced.


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