By Priscila Brandao
Our trip through northern Minas Gerais begins in Pirapora, a city three hundred and forty kilometers from the state capital Belo Horizonte. Pirapora has a population of almost 60,000.
A charming and quiet place with a sense of pride around utility-scale solar power generation in Brazil The word, “Pirapora” means Jumping Fish in the local native Tupi language. The name comes from the spawning season when fish jump over the water to challenge the rapids and reach the river’s headwaters to mate, which is the most suitable place for spawning. And this is not just any river.
Made of iron, wooden planks and metal brackets, the beautiful Belgian-style Marechal Hermes bridge was built in 1922. Today, the bridge connects Pirapora to Buritizeiro and is no longer used by trains, only by bikes, motorcycles, and pedestrians.
Our hotel was right in front of the bridge. During the day, we thought guests were carrying wheeled suitcases into the hotel lobby. But we were wrong.
A Newly Vibrant Economy
Pirapora is the second largest industrial hub in northern Minas Gerais and serves as a busy trading hub thanks to the textile and metals industries. Since the start of construction of the Pirapora Complex, which comprises of 11 plants, in 2016, the city has seen a major transformation.
When the crew was getting hungry, we went down to the river’s edge and found a restaurant where we met Kaká. Kaká is a friendly restaurant owner of one of the trendiest restaurants in the city. While in Pirapora, he shared his story with us.
Kaká’s restaurant specialty is none other than surubim, a native fish from the Sao Francisco River. He offers moqueca de surubim, or you can get it barbecued, grilled, and fried. He told us that the number of customers has grown by 30 percent since the start of construction work at the solar Complex.
He also told us that many residents rent out their homes due to local demand for housing from this new solar workforce. Today, he says, there is no unemployment in Pirapora.
The Pirapora Solar Complex
The Pirapora Solar Complex is located just a few kilometers from the city center. It is the smallest of the three solar power generation plants we visited during this trip.
Even so, the magnitude of the site surprised us. It has more than one million and two hundred modules in an area of 850 hectares, or the equivalent of almost 1,200 soccer fields. It also has an installed capacity of 400 MW.
That’s enough to power 4,200 homes for one year with clean, renewable energy. This means that one hundred thousand metric tons of CO2 are being averted from the atmosphere.
EDF Renewables is a French company engaged in the development, construction, and operation of global wind and solar power projects, is in charge of management. EDF currently owns and operates the Pirapora complex along with Omega Geração.
Power Throughout Brazil
Julio Soares, an operation and maintenance (O&M) technician at EDF, was our guide at the Complex. Here for two years, Julio explained to us that all the power generated here goes first to a substation located inside the park itself and then is retransmitted to a larger substation. The power is then carried by larger, taller, high-voltage transmission lines to distribution networks, which are the power lines on utility poles.
This is how the power distributed by utility companies reaches light switches at homes, stores, clinics, and other sites throughout Brazil.
Patrick Pereira Souza is another technician who helped our team understand how the Pirapora solar park works. He is an O&M supervisor at EDF. He was born in Buritizeiro and monitors the performance of the plants.
At the peak of construction, he tells us that there were about a thousand people on site working. Many came from elsewhere. Patrick is proud to be working in a cutting-edge industry that contributes to the reduction of polluting gases on the planet.
As a child, he never imagined that one day he would be involved in a process that could also benefit future generations.
Made In Brazil
Pirapora was the first utility-scale solar power plant to use PV modules manufactured in Brazil instead of China, where most PV comes from. This makes Pirapora quite unique. Local production was critical for Pirapora to also become the first plant of its kind to benefit from a loan from the Brazilian Development Bank, or BNDES. At the time, in 2017, Marcos Cardoso, head of energy at the BNDES, told France-Presse that investing in solar power is a top priority to enable Brazil to comply with the Paris Agreement, in which it committed to increasing the mix of renewables on the grid to the magnitude of 45% of total energy produced by 2030.
The San Francisco River
We must go back a little to São Francisco River to fully understand all the changes solar has brought to this community. The São Francisco River is one of the longest and most important in Brazil. Historically it has always benefitted the communities around it. It is fed by numerous tributaries that contribute to its flow and supply.
One of them is the Rio das Velhas, which originates in Ouro Preto, a town of great historical importance for the development of the central region of Minas Gerais and which joins São Francisco near Pirapora. The São Francisco Hydrographic Region is one of the 12 hydrographic regions in the country. It occupies 7.5% of the Brazilian territory and covers seven states: Bahia, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, Goiás and the Federal District.
Pirapora is in what we know as Alto São Francisco.
But in recent decades, Velho Chico has suffered from decreasing water levels due to many factors: deforestation, pollution and diversions for irrigation and hydroelectric projects.
According to the National Agency for Water and Basic Sanitation (ANA), since 2012 the São Francisco River Basin has been experiencing rainfall volumes below the historical average.
The river’s drought has serious consequences for the population, especially for people who depend on it for agriculture and fishing. Kaká himself, the owner of the restaurant I mentioned, commented that each day it is more difficult to find surubim fish nearby. Therefore, having a solar park in the municipality can be seen as a way to alleviate the problems of the water crisis that we face today, because the plants bring economic and social alternatives for the population.
The town of Pirapora represents the name of our campaign, From Gold to the Sun, very well. It was an important city in the transportation of minerals and the colonial era– principally gold – between Minas and other states of Brazil, and now it shines a new light of prosperity for the new generations with the promise of solar.
Solar Power Impacts Lives.
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