While researching my upcoming travels through humble Paraguay, I landed on one of the biggest sightseeing spots in the country: the Itaipú Dam. It was an attraction I had never heard of, and as any tourist on auto-pilot, I added it to my list of adventures.
When I arrived at the dam, I was blown away by its size, its capacity, and its sustainability! Sitting on the immense Paraná River at the Brazil-Paraguay border, it boasts the title as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, and rightly so! Stretching over 7km, with 20 concrete generating units, and a 14,000 megaWatt electric generation capacity, it really is a wonder.
Itaipú is the largest dam of its type – overtaken only by the Three-Gorges dam in China, whose capacity is 60% larger but with lesser production. Since its inception in 1984 until the end of 2015, Itaipú has generated an accumulated 2.4billion MWh of clean energy. For comparison, the Churchill Falls plant in Newfoundland, Canada has had only 1billion MWh since 1971. As such, Itaipú holds the record as the largest renewable energy generator of the planet!
Flowing from the Paraná river to the 1,350km2 reservoir above the dam, the water then runs through turbines in the generating units, converting hydroelectric power into electricity. This clean energy is split between Brazilian and Paraguayan electricity grids: meeting 16% of Brazil’s national energy needs, and 78% of Paraguay’s. In fact, in 2016, this energy was enough to cover all of Brazil for over 2 months, and all of Paraguay for over 7 years, without needing to burn coal or oil. Itaipú’s unrivalled generation is largely thanks to the climatic conditions of the region. The monthly average rainfall of 2500 millimeters keeps the reservoir at a stable level, enabling consistent power supply from the dam.
Despite Itaipú’s merits, controversy always arises with the construction of such a big piece of infrastructure. Thousands of residents were displaced during the flooding of land and creation of a reservoir. Furthermore, local animals were forced to navigate the new water body after losing valuable territory. Luckily, the company has implemented measures to minimize these impacts: relocation costs and compensation were given to local residents, a fish pass was constructed on the dam in 2002, and eight animal reserves were created for displaced wildlife. More recently, a biodiversity corridor was created to link these reserves with the nearby Iguaçu National Park, promoting animal movement. Effectively, Itaipú has committed itself to the sustainability of species as well as energy.
Hydroelectric power is a force to be reckoned with. In 2015, it was the biggest global renewable energy contributor: supplying 70% of all renewable electricity, and 17% of the world’s total electricity. These numbers are expected to increase as renewable energy becomes a more popular choice among consumers. It is also an extremely efficient power generator: converting up to 90% of available energy into electricity, when by comparison, fossil fuels can only convert about 50%. The potential held by hydroelectric power has been seized by Paraguay and Brazil to great avail, and other countries will be sure to follow step soon.