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Eduardo de Melo Pinto, CEO, Santo Antonio Energia, Brazil

21.12.2013 / Energyboardroom

Eduardo de Melo Pinto, CEO of Santo Antonio Energia, discusses the true benefits of settling a new hydropower project in the Amazon for its neighboring communities, and furthermore, highlights the need to evaluate the best options for capitalizing on the hydro potential remaining in Brazil.

Santo Antonio power plant has come a long way since the project began in 2008. What has been achieved so far at the project, and what is left to achieve before it reaches completion?

Santo Antônio Energia is the company responsible for the construction and operation of Santo Antônio Hydroelectric Plant, located in Madeira River, seven kilometers from Porto Velho (RO). The project started generating energy on March 30th, 2012 with the operation of two of its 50 Bulb turbines.

This project’s auction took place in December 2007 and the actual start of operations only commenced in September 2008. For this project, we managed to acquire the environmental licenses and other necessary requirements in a record period of time. Initially, two powerhouses were planned but we managed to install two extra in anticipation of the plant’s future capacity expansion. The first of these four powerhouses, holding eight turbines, is already fully operational and the second one (12 turbines) is almost ready to provide energy as well. When we reach the end of this year 22 turbines will be commercially operating, using full capacity of the two powerhouses. In addition, the third powerhouse is under construction but with substantial advancements; the fourth is still in its initial stages. Overall, the timing for this project has been very tight and we have been able to perform excellent project management considering the challenges that surround such a large project in the Amazon.

What have been the greatest challenges in the realization of the project so far?

Perhaps the main challenge of this project is the Amazon region itself. Building a power plant on the river basin of the Amazon region is already complex, but the Madeira River has particularities that make it even more of a challenge. In fact this river has extreme flow variations: other rivers located in the southeast of Brazil have water flows with 5,000m3 per second, whereas the Madeira River reaches 38,000m3 per second, almost eight times more. The Madeira is a young river, and as such, it still has to define its final course. However, we are controlling this situation and have experienced engineers monitoring it and providing the best solutions as the project advances.

What projects has Santo Antonio brought forward to support neighboring communities and the region? 

The establishment of Santo Antônio Hydroelectric Plant also contributes to several economic sectors of Rondônia, mainly with the city of Porto Velho by providing opportunities of jobs and new businesses.

When we came up with the complete business plan to start operations on the Madeira River, we included a specific program with socioeconomic benefits for the communities. This program was approved by the government and by IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) and brought education, employment and health benefits to the neighboring communities.

Similar projects would bring 80 percent of the workforce from the outside and recruit only 20 percent locally; we are very proud to have reversed this by employing 80 percent of the people locally. This project, named ‘Acreditar’, was carried out in collaboration with SENAI (National Service for Industrial Learning) and as many as 54,000 people participated and were trained before choosing the best candidates. Even though 20,000 people were chosen at the end of the training period, the remaining experienced some great training and have the chance to apply in other sectors to find secure employment. Moreover, 90 percent of the local workforce will be maintained throughout the operational life of the project, for a period of 35 years. Given the success of this program ‘Acreditar’, the government has decided to set it as a reference nationally and even internationally, with the program being implemented in Angola, Venezuela and other countries.

We have also invested locally to acquire the materials, equipment and food necessary for the realization of the construction work. Therefore, we have massively contributed to the development of the local economy. Finally, we have taken a special approach to employ women in the workforce, with as much as 10 percent of the positions in the project being filled by women, across all functions.

In Brazil, technically and operationally, hydro dams are the best in the world, and manage to generate efficient energy while safeguarding the environment. What have been some of the environmental incentives introduced?

Sustainability is a key element since the beginning and Santo Antônio Energia started its work committed to meeting the demand of the community and regulatory agencies. Based on this premise, R$ 2 billion has been invested in programs of the Basic Environmental Project (PBA), a document that outlines the measures to be implemented before, during and after the works to address suitability of the impacts identified in the Environmental Impact Report (EIA-RIMA).

Santo Antonio has taken a very special approach to protecting the environment and has generously invested in the preservation of fish, conducting research and finding new innovative solutions to enable fish reproduction and sustainability. Our endeavors have been much discussed in the media, and once again we feel honored to provide such important assistance to the environment of the region. Through our research we found 70 new species of fish never before registered, and this river holds more than 1,000 different fish species, numbers that qualify Madeira River as the greatest biodiversity river in the world.

There is also the Fish Transfer System (STP) implemented that guarantees the fish migration over the river in order to overpass the plant dam to follow the river stream during piracema, even with the plant under operation. The STP structure consists of a canal that reproduces the natural features of the Madeira River waterfalls and the proportional flow similar to the river—everything to provide the identification of the fish to its natural habitat.

Another effort has been made on the archeological site, bringing in experts to protect ancient and valuable land and rocks by using new scanning technologies from Portugal to assess the value of the territory. As five million native inhabitants once lived in the Amazon, it is important to make sure that we are not stepping on important archeological material. Human heritage is unique and must be left unharmed.

The program related to the Archaeological, History and Pre-History Heritage allowed that five areas with extensive stones containing rock carvings, hidden during the rainy season of the Madeira River and located where the reservoir of the Santo Antônio hydroelectric plant, were the subject of an unpublished work in Brazil: a survey with laser-scan methodology. That is, the digital record for the reconstitution of the stones and petroglyphs into 3D models. This record will allow the petroglyphs to be studied in the laboratory and associated to the occupation of the archeological site located close to the banks of Madeira River, thus enabling us to better know the occupation, habits, and symbolic systems of people who lived in this part of Amazon.

Furthermore, from its earliest stages, we understood the need for the least environmental impact possible, with the maximum generating capacity. Santo Antonio uses a run-on-the-river concept instead of a reservoir. This concept respects the environment much more, as water does not need to be flooded over large areas. Although this new method has a better environmental footprint, its power generating capacity is much more limited than older approaches, especially in this capricious river where water flows can oscillate between 38,000m3/second to 4,000m3/second. These heavy variations demand great flexibility and this is why we are expanding our total turbine capacity from 44 to 50 turbines.

However, environmental concerns aside, in terms of investments and power generating capacity, building one hydropower plant with a large reservoir can be less expensive and more productive than building two similar size run-on-the-river plants. For instance, Belo Monte has an installed capacity of 11 GW but can only generate 4.5 GW on average, given the large dry periods in Brazil. At Santo Antonio we are managing a better performance through the expansion of the six new turbines, reaching 3,568MW and a physical guarantee of 2,424 MW. This represents a guaranteed average of 69 percent of generated electricity supplied to the national grid, much higher than the average in Europe, which is around 40 percent.

Looking at the future, after the project is completed, what would you like Santo Antonio to represent amongst Brazil’s hydropower projects?

We want Santo Antonio to stand as a benchmark project, a true reference in terms of efficiency, quality and high-energy generation. We want the neighboring communities to be proud of this project, and Santo Antonio to become a visited site in the region, something to be proud to showcase to the next generation.

On a final note, I would like to stress that even though we are currently only exploiting 30 percent of Brazil’s complete resources in hydro, considering the increase of demand in energy of five percent per year, new hydro projects on these rivers could stop as early as 2020 or 2025. Once all these resources are exploited and we will need to rely on other sources, I am afraid that the environmental impact will be much stronger. Other non-renewable sources such as thermal, coal and nuclear power will become more important. It is clear that the direct environmental impact of reservoirs is much stronger than run-on-the-river hydro plants, but at least this system enables operators to double the physical capacity of the dam, thus generating much more energy with fewer dams having to be constructed. It is necessary to think on a long-term and on the sustainability of our energy matrix. Certainly, on the long run, reservoirs are a more viable solution. This fact brings truly interesting discussions to the table.

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