The Technology Context – B101

The Itaipu Dam- A solution to renewable energy sources?

The Itaipu Dam

The Itaipu dam is constructed across the seventh longest river, the Paraná River along the border of Brazil and Paraguay. It was built 32 years ago to rovide hydro-electric power to almost all of Paraguay’s needs and to help with Brazils needs. The dam is capable of producing 14 Gigawatts of electricity. 10 Generators are used producing power of 50 Hz for Paraguay and the other 10 producing 60 Hz power for Brazil. The most recent generator was installed in March 2007, giving the dam its full capacity.

Before looking at the question asked we have to ask, what is sustainable development? To be sustainable, this would involve using resources without producing any waste, either by recycling or using renewable sources of energy. If the construction of a project produces waste or other factors like social or environmental were included then its sustainability would be put into question.

Construction of hydro-electric dams are not only to produce electricity, but to help cut back on fossil fuels and unsustainable options of producing electricity, which produce waste which can be harmful to the environment. This harm would include contributing to the greenhouse effect, destroying vegetation and animals and using the earth’s resources without recycling them.

Issues Surrounding the Dam

The question I am going to discuss will be: Is the Itaipu hydro-electric dam an example of a renewable source of electricity?

To answer this question you have to look at several factors. Firstly how the dam was constructed and whether these were sustainable and compare it to the advantages and disadvantages of the power produced. Any other issues I can look at and discuss whether all these factors can contribute towards calling the dam sustainable.

The Itaipu dam being considered sustainable is an important issue, as it can be used as an example for building hydro-electric dams in the future which could be completely sustainable. It is an ideal project to look at as it has reached its full capacity, fully built and has been producing energy for a considerable time to look at its effectiveness.

The first factor I will look at is the construction of the dam.

Construction of the dam included using 12 800 000 m³ of concrete. Using this concrete would produce transportation waste as carbon dioxide and other emissions caused by transportation. Construction costs, which were about $20 million, included the creating of the reservoir, relocating local people and the running of the dam which is discussed later. Concluding the construction of the dam, I think that it is unavoidable at present to construct a dam without producing waste products so cutting down the waste to a minimum would be the best solution. As the dam was built over 32 years ago, compared to techniques used today the dam could have been built with producing less waste. Overall there are no lasting unsustainable effects of the actual construction of the dam so this would not be considered unsustainable after construction.

The creation of the reservoir was probably the most controversial issue surrounding the dam. To create the reservoir 1,350 square kilometres of land had to be flooded. Social and environmental issues came up with this section.

Social issues included the relocation of 10,000 people. This relocation cost the government not just for relocating, but for the compensation to the people for destroying their homes and their land, which included farms which they lived off.
In the future if other dams are constructed the ethical issues surrounding the relocation of people may result in dams not being built.

Environmental impacts of the flooding in this area included the destruction of rare fruit trees, orchids and other vegetation. This would be unsustainable for the environment, but if precautions were taken relocating the species then this would not be as much of a problem. This issues with the Itaipu dam was that not enough precautions were taken, which resulted in not just plants and vegetation, but 50% of species, some endangered were destroyed, with others that survived breeding and migration patterns were changed. If precautions were taken flooding of important land may become sustainable. It would be an important factor on the location of future dams. Along with these problems the dam also increases soil erosion creating further problems in the future.

Another important issue was the claim that hydro-electric power in countries produces 7% more greenhouse emissions due to the reservoirs. The creation of the reservoir was the cause. The vegetation at the bottom after the flooding decomposes without oxygen, aerobically and produces carbon and methane, which comes to the surface as a gas, which can harm the environment. This effect was only thought to be considerable over the tropics, so dams built in other areas would not have this effect as much.

If the levels of these gases from the reservoirs are proved to be correct, calculations for greenhouse gas would have to be brought up by 20%. If this is proved then the dams would have to be considered unsustainable, as the effect to the environment would be harmful.

Despite this the emissions would not be as bad as if a non renewable source is used such as coal, oil or natural gas. Coal plants produce an average of 67.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. The Itaipu dam avoids these emissions (so far not proven to) and generates 75 Terawatt hours of electricity.

Is the hydro-electric power the best renewable source to use?

Another issue would be considering other renewable sources of energy, is hydro-electric power the best source to use? Compared to other sources the generators can convert 93.8% of the available power into electricity making them the most efficient. It is also not as expensive as others. Wind power, for example to produce the energy of a dam would require far greater time, more land to use and more money to construct vast numbers of wind turbines to match one hydro-electric dams. The dams however can only be built in certain locations, this is also true for others like wind power, tidal power, solar power and others, but these others are more readily available. Hydro power also is not restricted to time or seasons, unlike solar power and tidal power, it is regulated due to demand.

Possible Solutions to the Issues

As mentioned earlier, there are few solutions to the construction of the dam to cancel the waste products of the construction of the dam. This can only be brought down to a minimum and so cannot be completely taken away with present technology. I think this will always be true, but would not be a problem. The amount of waste produce would be insignificant in comparison with the benefits of producing electricity without any waste products and would not product any waste in the future, except possible repairs and upgrades.

At present the creation of the reservoir could be made sustainable if the impact on the environment, such as the destruction of the vegetation or animals is kept at a minimum, or if they were relocated without damaging the environment then this would not be a problem. This would depend mostly on the location of the reservoir and the amount of damage it would make in its location.

Also depending on the location would be the amount of people that would have to be relocated, which would also depend on the size of the dam and reservoir. If location were found with little or no people this would not be a problem, but larger dams such as the Three Gorges Dam will relocate over one million people. The Itaipu dam did not relocate as many as this, but 10,000 is a considerable number of people whose lives have been changed and who would have to be compensated. Future dams may have to relocate people and the location will be put into question.

The last issue I have discussed, as it has not been proved may not be true but I can still discuss solutions to it. The way to stop the vegetation decomposing, would be to clear the area of vegetation before the area is flooded. On smaller area dams this may be viable, but on large scale dams, like the Itaipu dam which has a reservoir with 1,350 km2 of land, this would not be an option, as it would increase the cost and the time by such a large amount. Also the question of where the vegetation will end up, and the transport costs and waste products put into doing this would be far too great for such a large dam.

Financial and Political Effects of the Itaipu Dam

The main financial effect of the project was the $20 million spent entirely on the project. This included the construction of the dam, the reservoir, the generators, the payment of the workers, the planning and concepts.

The increasing production of electrical power since construction began.

The political effects of the dam have so far been mostly beneficial. The co operation between the Brazilian and Paraguayan Governments has increased relations as the dam is shared. It is an important source to the Paraguayan government as it provides over 93% of their power. Negative political effects however, have been from the relocation of the 10,000 people creating distrust and fear that it will happen to other people. Environmentalists and other people who have been concerned about the environmental impact are unhappy about the impacts the dam has created and so would cause political problems. However the amount of people who have benefited from electricity, some for the first time has outweighed the negative effects.

Effects of this Project on Sustainable Development

From what I have found out, I can conclude that this project has and will have a big impact not just on hydro-electric dams being, or that are about to be constructed, but also other renewable energy sources, as it will help to decide which is the best cost effective renewable energy source to use.

From Brazil and Paraguay’s perspective I expect it has encouraged the construction of more hydro-electric dams where possible, as it has been a success in terms of its co operation between the government and that there have been no major problems to date. There will be some concern, about the environmental impacts of the reservoir and the relocation of local residents, but I think the benefits of the dam will outweigh the negative effects when deciding whether to construct more. Looking at other forms of renewable energy/ sustainable development projects I think the governments would decide to use hydro-electric power before any other, as few others have been used. This would depend on location for the project, as other renewable energy sources and more flexible on location.

From a global perspective, being the largest fully complete dam it has had a big impact on the construction of dams in other countries. I am sure, for example that the Three Gorges Dam project would have used ideas and solution to problems from the Itaipu dam, once it is complete the Three Gorges Dam would replace the Itaipu dam as the largest in the world. In terms of other countries looking towards constructing sustainable development projects the dam would definitely encourage the use of hydro-electric power to other sources, but equally may discourage it with its negative effects, however I think despite its problems overall the project has been a success.


Type of Source Reference Structure Citation Example
Books New Scientist 3rd June 2005 Information Analysed
New Scientist 24th February 2005 Information Analysed
Websites http://www.solar.coppe.ufrj.br/itaipu.html ‘Not sufficient, unreliable, not feasable, are common bias. ITAIPU shows they…’ (Paragraph 2)
http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/Brazil/Background.html Information Analysed
http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/solar.renewables/page/hydroelec/hydroelec.html ‘Hydroelectric plants operate where suitable waterways are available, many of the best of these sites...’ (Paragraph 1)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydroelectricity Information Analysed
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itaipu Information Analysed
http://www.itaipu.gov.br/ Information Analysed
http://www.bp.com/productlanding.do?categoryId=6848contentId=7033471 Information Analysed
http://www.solar.coppe.ufrj.br/itaipu.html Information Analysed