Touring the Largest Hydroelectric Power Plant in the World, Paraguay

Here it is: the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world (©photocoen)

Here it is: the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world (©photocoen)

I read some facts and figures that simply boggled my mind:

  • The construction of the Itaipu Dam, for which 50 million tons of rock were moved, took 16 years [1975-1991].
  • The dam is 643 feet high and almost 5 miles long.
  • The plant has 20 generators, which altogether have a capacity of 14,000 megawatts.
  • The construction of the dam cost 25 billion US dollars.
  • The dam supplies 90% of Paraguay’s energy and 25% of Brazil’s electric power.

Truth be told, I couldn’t wrap my head around such numbers. A simple fact that in 1995 the Itaipu Dam was nominated as one of the seven modern wonders of the world by the American Society of Civil Engineers told me more about the high-tech wonder that I was about to visit. Other wonders on this list are, among others, the Golden Gate Bridge, the North Sea Protection Works in the Netherlands, and the Panama Canal.

So much water! (©photocoen)

So much water! (©photocoen)

It may be the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find when you drive around in your own vehicle without a guide. Road signs from Ciudad del Este to the dam were conspicuously missing. In fact, my partner Coen and I ended up at another dam, got a tour there and about halfway discovered that this wasn’t the Itaipu Dam at all, but a much smaller one!

Right.

At least at this power plant we got to see something inside as well. (©photocoen)

At least at this power plant we got to see something inside as well. (©photocoen)

So off we went, found the Itaipu Dam Complex, parked in the parking lot and realized immediately that this was something on an entirely different scale indeed.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You are interested in engineering feats.
  • You are checking out the modern wonders of the world, and this is one of them.
  • Good for: people interested in technique and infrastructure, but also a fun and informative trip to take with kids.

Parties Involved in the Itaipu Dam

The Itaipu hydroelectric dam is a joint venture of Brazil and Paraguay in the upper region of the Paraná River. Even though the dam is owned equally by Brazil and Paraguay, Paraguay’s sovereignty was at last acknowledged in 2009. Since Argentina was afraid the dam could be used as a weapon – opening the gates could mean that Buenos Aires would be flooded – it was established in 1979 how much water could be released from the dam at any given moment.

Imagine how much water can come flowing down here at once (©photocoen)

Imagine how much water can come flowing down here at once (©photocoen)

Visiting the Itaipu Dam

A visit to the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant consists of two parts. First we watched a 30-minute film about the construction of the dam where we couldn’t fail to notice the propaganda aspect – the upsides of this project were far more accentuated than the downsides.

Despite the economic advantages the dam has for both countries, they come at a price, viz. the huge environmental impact this project has. For example, the stretch of the Paraná River that was allocated for the construction of the dam used to be home to the Salto de Sete Quedas [Seven Waterfalls], which were larger than the waterfalls of Iguazu.

Is it just me or do the other visitors appear just as somewhat lost at the sight of this immense structure? (©photocoen)

Is it just me or do the other visitors appear just as somewhat lost at the sight of this immense structure? (©photocoen)

The second part of the tour consisted of a bus tour over the premises of the Itaipu Dam’s site. A guide mentioned those mind-boggling facts and figures once more while the bus drove along the exterior of the construction, offering views of the chutes and the lake.

This is the inside of the smaller hydroelectric power plant we accidentally visited (©photocoen)

This is the inside of the smaller hydroelectric power plant we accidentally visited (©photocoen)

I understand all the security measures in a place like this, yet passing by in a bus gives me the feeling that I’m watching television instead of being able to really take the place in, to feel its magnitude. But I needn’t have worried. The bus did stop at one point and from a platform we could stare at the sight and take photos.

More Mind-Boggling Statistics

On the platform I studied more info. This time the numbers tried to put the humungous size of this hydroelectric dam into some perspective:

  • The volume of iron and steel used in the Itaipu Dam structure would be enough to build 380 Eiffel Towers or 5 Hoover Dams.
  • The volume of concrete used in Itaipu represents 15 times the volume utilized to build the Channel Tunnel between France and England.
  • The dam is as high as a 65-story building.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to visit the interior of the dam but thanks to our unplanned visit to that smaller dam nearby we could, to some extent, imagine the size and complexity of the machinery in this one.

Practicalities

  • Tours are free of charge and leave daily at frequent hours from the visitors’ center on the Itaipu Dam site.
  • Regular buses ply between Ciudad del Este and the Itaipu Dam.
  • You need to show your passport for identification.
  • During the summer there is a special light show [7.30pm], for which you need to make reservations.

Photos by Coen Wubbels

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