Developing Santo Antonio: A Focus on Sustainability

Because of its location within a particularly biodiverse region of Brazil, the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project had to be developed with a strict focus on sustainability. In fact, Santo Antonio Energia spent US$637 million on environmental, social and resettlement programs.

Because of its location within a particularly biodiverse region of Brazil, the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project had to be developed with a strict focus on sustainability. In fact, Santo Antonio Energia spent US$637 million on environmental, social and resettlement programs

By Amauri Alvarez

When the first turbine-generating unit at the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project began producing electricity in March 2012, it was nine months ahead of the operating date set in the concession contract for the project. This facility, on the Madeira River in the state of Rondonia, is in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. As such, the biggest challenge in developing this project was to prove it is possible to harness the resources of the Amazon River sustainably while preserving the region’s natural heritage.

Conservation of the biodiversity in this region is a constant focus of debate among environmentalists. In fact, the rain forest contains more than 60% of all the life forms on earth.

When construction of the Santo Antonio facility is completed in 2016 and all 44 turbine-generators are operating, the plant will be able to provide electricity to about 40 million people, based on Brazil’s average monthly consumption of 148 kWh per household. And developer Santo Antonio Energia is studying the possibility of adding six more turbines in the powerhouse to increase capacity by 429.6 MW and provide about 13% more electricity.

Developing the project

Planning for the development of the Santo Antonio project began in 2001 with geological and engineering studies conducted by a consortium of Eletrobras Furnas and Odebrecht, the shareholders of Santo Antonio Energia. The plant was designed to make maximum use of hydroelectric potential while having minimum impact on a region with significant biodiversity.

These studies led to the decision to use bulb turbines, a preferred technology in many countries because it is particularly suited to high water flow and low head. The Madeira River flow changes from 4,000 m3/sec in dry times to 40,000 m3/sec in rainy times. By harnessing the river’s current, this type of turbine avoids the need for big heads or the formation of large reservoirs, which cause major environmental and social impacts. Bulb turbines also offer efficiency of about 98.2% at full load because they are completely submerged, and they can handle the large variations in water discharge typical of the Amazon region.

In 2006, ANEEL approved the basic design of the Santo Antonio hydropower plant and subsequently Santo Antonio Energia, the company awarded the 35-year concession in 2008 to deploy and operate the hydro project, began construction.

Santo Antonio Energia proceeded with the plan to install a total of 44 bulb turbines. Several companies were awarded contracts to supply units for this facility: Alstom is supplying 18 turbines, Voith Hydro 13 and Andritz 12. Use of this technology allowed the company to reduce the size of the reservoir from 1,500 km2 — if another type of turbine was used — to just 546 km2, an area roughly equal to the river’s flood plain. In fact, the Santo Antonio plant has achieved the best flooded area to power production ratio, when compared with other hydro facilities located in the Amazon region (see Table 1 on page 17).

Table 1: Flooded Area to Power Production Ratio
*Santo Antonio will have a 546 km² reservoir. Less the natural flood plain, it will cover an area of 385 km².

From the environmental standpoint, construction of this type of reservoir is even more positive because the area in question consists of relatively degraded forest. In return for permission to develop this project, Santo Antonio Energia is responsible for maintaining a 38,000 hectare Permanent Preservation Area (the 500 metre-wide strip surrounding the reservoir). At the same time, a systematic survey is being conducted to retrieve genetic materials and monitor local plant and animal life to produce valuable scientific data. In addition, studies are ongoing to find ways of preserving fish in their natural habitat.

The 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project, under construction on the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon, is being developed with a strict focus on sustainability
The 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project, under construction on the Madeira River in the Brazilian Amazon, is being developed with a strict focus on sustainability.

Technical details

Each turbine used at the project has an installed capacity of 71.6 MW. In addition, ANEEL is analyzing a Santo Antonio Energia study that indicates an energy gain of about 13% (429.6 MW) through the installation of six more bulb turbines. A final decision will be made by the end of 2012. Santo Antonio Energia was authorized to increase the reservoir level from 70.5 metres to 71.3 metres but the company is still awaiting revision of its operating license, including the additional six turbines.

The plant is expected to be generating at full capacity by 2016. The power generated is being added to the National Interconnected System (SIN), supplying Rondonia and consumers in other parts of Brazil. To ensure that the energy generated at Santo Antonio gets to other regions, the Madeira transmission line is being installed to link Rondonia and Sao Paulo State, a major energy consumer. The north will finally be connected to the SIN, which means thermal plants operating in the region can be shut down and renewable energy can be added to the nation’s grid.

The cost reduction resulting from closing those plants will be shared by all consumers, who now bear the cost of operating them through an obligatory tariff included in monthly bills throughout Brazil. The fact that the Santo Antonio plant is generating power ahead of schedule means an additional average power of 450 MW will be available on the market between 2012 and 2014.

Inclusion in the SIN not only increases the amount of energy available but will allow exchanges between regions — a procedure that circumvents localized scarcity situations and conserves the reservoirs of the southeast, thereby storing large amounts of water for the dry season. In the north, the flood peak occurs in March, a month before the onset of droughts in the southeast. The peak of the dry season is in September, one month before the start of the rainy season in the southeast. In other words, harnessing the water resources of the north means exploiting the synergy that all the hydropower-producing regions have to offer, which results in effective complementarity for the entire integrated system and benefits the nation as a whole.

Focusing on sustainability

Sustainability has been the watchword since initial discussions began on implementation of the plant in that region. Even before breaking ground, Santo Antonio Energia began working with a full commitment to meeting the legitimate demands of the local community and government regulators.

An unprecedented step aimed at minimizing the project’s environmental impacts was the decision to hold public hearings involving all stakeholders before the formalization of the terms of reference to be delivered to the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA), the agency responsible for issuing environmental permits. From 2003 to 2005, experts conducted a number of surveys to assess the technical and economic feasibility of the project and its environmental reverberations. These efforts resulted in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the basic document for identifying social, economic and environmental issues, which has been enhanced using further studies conducted over the years.

The dam built to impound water for the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project in Brazil was designed to have minimal impacts on the environment
The dam built to impound water for the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project in Brazil was designed to have minimal impacts on the environment.

Based on this documentation, the responsible agencies have provided confirmation of the project’s environmental viability. In 2008, all these efforts resulted in the Basic Environmental Plan, a document that sets forth all the programs and measures to be implemented before, during and after the works to adequately address the impacts identified in the EIA for the plant. In 2008, it was approved by IBAMA, which authorized construction.

The environmental licensing process necessary for Santo Antonio’s construction and operation led to the definition of 48 conditioning factors for which specific programs and projects have been designed. The BRL1.6 billion (US$784 million) invested in that area has been divided into four fronts to ensure appropriate practices for the plant’s operations and the public in Rondonia:

— Environmental programs;

— Relocation of riverside communities;

— Environmental compensation programs; and

— Social outreach programs.

The completion of some stages of these programs led to the most important authorization of all, the Operating License, issued in September 2011. This is a vital document for ensuring that the hydro plant begins generating and supplying power on schedule.

The very presence of the plant represents the beginning of a new cycle of development for the region. In addition to the funds invested in its construction and the boost the project has given to the local economy, Santo Antonio Energia is investing about BRL200 million ($98 million) in shares previously approved by IBAMA and made official by Protocols of Intent signed with the city and state governments, benefiting the public in the areas of education, health, infrastructure and the environment.

In partnership with the National Industrial Apprenticeship Service, Odebrecht, the contractor responsible for building the plant, has implemented the Acreditar program to offer local workers free courses teaching job skills related to the construction trades. Thanks to this initiative, an average of 85% of the project’s workforce now consists of local residents. At the peak of the work, Santo Antonio directly created 18,000 jobs.

The Santo Antonio hydroelectric plant will also leave important legacies to science because it has produced several original social and environmental studies of the region. The company has hired a group of about 1,000 experts — ranging from biologists and entomologists to paleontologists, archeologists, scientists and social workers — to conduct surveys and monitor the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the Madeira River and human activity in the vicinity. This initiative is generating unprecedented data, books and articles that are invaluable to the region and to Brazil’s scientific knowledge. One important outcome will be the production of a solid and reliable database that will make it possible to continue advancing our knowledge about the physical, biological, socioeconomic and cultural environments of the Madeira River Basin.

Amauri Alvarez is operation and maintenance manager with Santo Antonio Energia, developer of the 3,150 MW Santo Antonio project.

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