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Electric Worlds / Mondes électriques

Creations, Circulations, Tensions, Transitions (19th–21st C.)


Edited By Alain Beltran, Léonard Laborie, Pierre Lanthier and Stéphanie Le Gallic

What interpretation(s) do today’s historians make of electrification? Electrification is a process which began almost a hundred and fifty years ago but which more than one billion men and women still do not have access to. This book displays the social diversity of the electric worlds and of the approaches to their history. It updates the historical knowledge and shows the renewal of the historiography in both its themes and its approaches. Four questions about the passage to the electrical age are raised: which innovations or combination of innovations made this passage a reality? According to which networks and appropriation? Evolving thanks to which tensions and alliances? And resulting in which transition and accumulation?

Quel(s) regard(s) les historiens d’aujourd’hui portent-ils sur l’électrification, processus engagé il y a près de cent cinquante ans mais auquel plus d’un milliard d’hommes et de femmes restent encore étrangers ? Le présent volume rend compte de la diversité des mondes sociaux électriques et des manières d’enquêter sur leur histoire. Il actualise les connaissances et témoigne du renouvellement de l’historiographie, dans ses objets et ses approches. Quatre points d’interrogation sur le basculement des sociétés dans l’âge électrique jalonnent le volume : moyennant quelles créations ou combinaisons créatrices ? En vertu de quelles circulations et appropriations ? Selon quelles tensions et alliances ? Et produisant quelles transitions et accumulations ?

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Is Small Really Beautiful? Operating Early Brazilian Power Plants

← 558 | 559 →

Is Small Really Beautiful?

Operating Early Brazilian Power Plants

Gildo Magalhães SANTOS


Due to its abundant river streams, Brazil chose very early its preference for hydroelectric generation. The end of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century witnessed a wide propagation of dams and power plants generally ranging from 1 to 30 MW. This was particularly true of the state of São Paulo, in the southern part of the country, where cities were blooming with economic prosperity, and rising coffee prices prompted surges of industrialization to such an extent that this state became since then the Brazilian economic leader. More recently, official environmental restrictions and non-governmental organizations made it more and more difficult to build large dams, so that eyes turned towards the still existing older and smaller power installations.

Keywords: History of electricity in Brazil, São Paulo State, Ancient power stations, Industrial heritage


En raison de ses rivières abondantes, le Brésil a choisi très tôt sa préférence pour la production hydroélectrique. La fin du XIXe siècle et les premières décennies du XXe siècle ont connu une vaste propagation de barrages et de centrales électriques allant généralement de 1 à 30 MW. Cela était particulièrement vrai de l’état de São Paulo, dans la partie sud du pays, où les villes florissaient grâce à la prospérité économique, et où le prix croissant du café avait incité des élans de l’industrialisation, de sorte que cet état de la fédération est devenu depuis lors le chef de l’économie brésilienne. Récemment, les restrictions environnementales officielles et des organisations non gouvernementales ont rendu de plus en plus difficile le fait de construire de grands barrages, de sorte que l’on a tourné les yeux vers les installations électriques anciennes et plus petites qui existent encore.

Mots clés : Histoire de l’électricité au Brésil, État de São Paulo, Anciennes centrales électriques, Patrimoine industriel

* ← 559 | 560 →

Introduction: In search for the memory of electrification

Due to its abundant river streams, Brazil chose very early its preference for hydroelectric generation. The end of the 19th Century and the first decades of the 20th Century witnessed a wide propagation of dams and power plants generally ranging from 1 to 30 MW. This was particularly true of the state of São Paulo, in the southern part of the country, where cities were blooming with economic prosperity, and rising coffee prices prompted surges of industrialization to such an extent that this state became since then the Brazilian economic leader. More recently, official environmental restrictions and non-governmental organizations made it more and more difficult to build large dams, so that eyes turned towards the still existing older and smaller power installations.

The Electromemory Project has been an effort to investigate how the general history of São Paulo State has intersected the economic and social history of about 120 years of electrification. Part of the project is the creation, out of the field reports and uncovered documents, of a thesaurus with the vocabulary related to the electrical industrial heritage and environment, to generate a relational digital data basis, and appropriate tools to allow the future public access to the main results.1

The present phase of the Electromemory project includes electric companies whose generating units were implanted from 1890 until 1960, such as the now private CPFL, or the still state-owned EMAE, as well as a number of smaller concessionaries. Around 60 sites were selected, with very representative power stations scattered throughout the state to search for their remaining memory and data. Field trips have been regularly carried out at those sites to unveil their historical importance, as well as to diagnose the corresponding memory preservation, including the industrial heritage and the extant material culture, indicating their state of organization and conservation. These plants have been running for such a long time that they became witnesses of a long history of social and economic events, as well as exemplary specimens in a living museum of the evolution in the history of technology, a legacy that deserves public recognition. They had been almost forgotten because of their small capacity (with a few exceptions of larger installations in that period), and ← 560 | 561 → they were resurrected as models by political words like “sustainability” and “environmental-friendliness,” virtually the opposite of the until then preferred models of large dams and high-capacity generation.

Coffee, railways, industry and electrification in São Paulo

Despite preliminary experiences (voltaic arc lamps and dynamos powered by steam tractors), the first Brazilian installation of a fixed thermal generator occurred in 1883, in Campos (275 km away from Rio de Janeiro), while the first hydroelectric power station (Marmelos-zero) was inaugurated in Juiz de Fora (182 km away from Rio de Janeiro), in 1889. Other cities and states soon followed, and in 1895 the state of São Paulo had in the city of Rio Claro its first hydroelectric central (Corumbataí).2

For some time thermal generators predominated, their cheapest available fuel was wood or charcoal, both very little efficient sources. Alternatively, coal had to be imported, because the few mines in the country produced only low-grade material, unfit for the purpose. A further source would be hydroelectric generation, but at that time this solution faced the problem of general uncertainty and absence of information about the national river volumes and flows, as well as about the real waterfall heights. Most of the important cities were located near the Atlantic coast, far away from the best sites for electricity production. To overcome this difficulty a Geological Commission was formed in 1875, still during the monarchical regime (which lasted until the Republic was proclaimed in 1889). However, the results of that national Geological Commission were not sufficient, particularly for the state of São Paulo where industrialization was demanding more energy. It must be pointed out that a significant part of this state was unchartered region, still covered by native woods and inhabited by Indian tribes. Thus the state of São Paulo formed its own Geographical and Geological Commission, which began its work in 1886 with the survey of the state’s local resources.3 This was a highly successful initiative, and one of the main products of this service was an extensive cartography which made public data showing the characteristics of many abundant river basins, particularly suited for hydraulic generation of electricity (Figure 1 – more detailed reports were published). ← 561 | 562 →

Figure 1. General chart (1910) of São Paulo State by the Geological and Geographical Commission


Source: Electromemory Archives, University of São Paulo

To fully appreciate the history of power plants built before the 1950s, it should be pointed out that the state of São Paulo went through a complex historical process, combining electrification to the “march westwards” (the expansion of its economic frontier, which intensified after 1870, mainly due to the multiplication of large coffee plantations), and the setting up of a railway network, bringing together industrialization, urbanization and immigration waves.4 The “white coal,” as the state’s waterways were called, provided for powering the electric plants that were instrumental for industries located in São Paulo City, Santos, Campinas, and in several other blooming cities in the state. Energy for industrialization at first came from burning wood and coal to feed steam machines. As the forested areas became scarcer, the companies resorted to imported coal, but its cost was prohibitive. Also hydraulic mill power was commonly employed for industry purposes, given the convenient abundance of rivers irrigating the state. In fact, as electric energy began to be implanted, one of the very first alternatives was to substitute the water wheel that moved the production lines of textile and paper industries by turbines and electric generators ← 562 | 563 → adapted to the very same machine elements. In this process the exceeding energy could be used to light up the working areas of the factory, introducing night shifts, and whenever available, to distribute electricity to neighbors.

As a result more and more enterprises flourished there, dedicated to textiles, paper, food production, sugarcane by-products, etc., as well as many diverse small manufacturers. The immigrants who worked both at the plantations and in the industrial plants came mostly from Italy and Japan, besides a traditional flow from Portugal, increased by workers from Spain, Germany, and other European countries. Some of those immigrants were skilled workers, a contrast with the ex-slaves freed in 1888 that were generally non-skilled. A middle-class started to grow, and a host of new cities were serviced by trains transporting people and goods, including coffee beans to be exported. Finally, those places became important commercial hubs, attracting more and more investment.

The next step into economic modernization was the gradual electrification of cities and farms, at first an initiative from local capitalists. They also promoted the use of electric motors in industries and urban transportation (streetcars), besides public and private illumination.5 When the generation supply was unable to meet the demand, the capacity or the number of machines would be increased, or other waterfalls were transformed into new power stations. Table 1 provides some data on this period’s economic development.

Table 1. Coffee/population/railways/industries/ electricity correlation in São Paulo6


← 563 | 564 →

Electrification was initially taken up by local entrepreneurs and investors scattered throughout the state, comprising plantation owners, middle class representatives and even small businessmen and skilled workers. By and by the local companies’ shares were concentrated in a handful of capitalists, and many municipal enterprises merged forming regional conglomerates by the 1920s.7 Foreign capital had also been attracted since the beginning, as demonstrated by Brazilian Traction, Light & Power (later called just “Light”), the Anglo-Canadian group that arrived in São Paulo as early as 1899. This company bought up some nationally-owned local electric utilities in the state, and built larger hydroelectric power plants (like Parnaíba in 1903, and Cubatão in 1926). Light concentrated most of its commercial operations along the São Paulo – Rio de Janeiro axis.8

Another corporation that came from abroad (in 1927) was American Foreign Power (or Amforp), linked to General Electric in the USA, and which used an entirely different strategy to conquer a significant share of the market in the state of São Paulo. It gradually bought successful smaller municipal or regional electric companies, so that in about 25 years it owned the concession for a region as large as half the state’s territory. Later using the name of the first national group they had acquired in 1927, Companhia Paulista de Força e Luz (also known by its abbreviation as CPFL), Amforp supplied electricity to a significant number of dynamic and fast-growing hinterland cities in the state.9

In a few years the state of São Paulo witnessed economic growth rates that were unparalleled in the country, so that it was nicknamed “the locomotive of Brazil”. Public schools spread out in its territory, and São Paulo City, the capital of the state, could display after 1934 the first university in Brazil (and moreover, a public one). São Paulo University was formed by joining a few previously existing isolated higher-learning institutions, including the Polytechnic School (founded in 1894). The engineers that graduated there could find jobs in public administration and private companies thanks to the coffee economic boom, and some would be involved also in the hydroelectric plants. The state suffered from the setback caused by the world crisis of 1929, which deeply affected the price of coffee. However it recovered slowly but firmly thanks to its installed industrial capacity. ← 564 | 565 →

Industrial Heritage

The memory of the industrial heritage lives on in the older power stations, whether still producing electricity, or extinct with dismantled installations. It is amazing that equipment originally designed to work for something like 50 years have had their lifetimes so greatly extended, in some cases exceeding a century. Beyond all expectation, much equipment has been either in continuous operation, or practically in condition of being easily reused again. In other cases the power generation units were only externally modernized (generally maintaining architectural features – Figure 2), in others they were outfitted with new equipment to be operated in parallel with the older one, and in a few instances nothing was added and the operation goes on unaltered.

Figure 2. Salto Grande power station (built in 1906)


Electromemory Archive

The largest electro-mechanical machines at the sites are, of course, the turbines and generators, and this part of the heritage is intimately related to the history of science and technology. Several aspects can be observed, starting with their building. Turbines were usually imported products of the German company Voith, but American, Swiss, Swedish, or Italian machines are also to be found. Pelton and Francis type turbines were used according to the height and flow intensity of the water source, more seldom the Kaplan model was also employed. Other preserved equipment ← 565 | 566 → associated to the turbines includes the water valves, lubricators, and flow or speed control devices.

Generators were also imported equipment (Figure 3), most of them from either the German corporations Siemens-Schuckert, or AEG, but also the American companies GE and Westinghouse are present, as well as the Swiss Brown-Boveri, and the Swedish ASEA. Starting in 1987, when refurbishing old power stations was decided by São Paulo state government, and whenever the equipment was changed, Brazilian manufacturers of turbines and generators can now also be found amid newer imported equipment from the same traditional foreign manufacturers.

Figure 3. Jaguari power station turbine and generator (1919)


Electromemory Archive

The generators were multi-poled, synchronous, and various types of transmission were used to interlink them with the turbines. Also part of the equipment, the excitatory coil, sometimes a larger equipment, may deserve its own separate room. During the early years electric frequency in São Paulo was 50 Hz or 60 Hz, depending on the generator being European or American-made, but in the middle of the 20th century the Brazilian government imposed integration based on the 60 Hz pattern nationwide, and therefore many generators had to be accordingly rewound.

The instruments used to measure currents, voltages, power, frequency synchronization, as well as switches, relays, and control panels and desks ← 566 | 567 → are an important chapter in the history of this electric industrial heritage. They immediately attract attention, for their early brilliant finishing can still be appreciated, as some of them are kept functioning shining as if they were brand new (Figure 4). Installed in elegant Carrara marble panels, some instruments have an art-nouveau style, while others show a clean functional aspect; most were likewise imported from Germany, the USA, Switzerland, Great Britain or Italy. Slowly these instruments were substituted by more modern equipment, until recently they turned completely obsolete with the introduction of computers, telemetering, and control at a distance; however, in a few locations, centenary instruments are still the only alternative. Notwithstanding this modernization, the old panels usually stay in the original places even when not used anymore, as homage to past eras.

Figure 4. Corumbataí power station instrument and control panel (1925)


Electromemory Archive

The substation in the earliest generating units is installed inside the power house, with its still active high-voltage switches and breakers, transformers and bus bars. Later substations were placed just outside the building, and still later the evolution brought the modern-looking removed and fenced-out substation. The energy delivered to the transmission lines flowed in cables (another important element with a history of its own), hanging from wooden or iron poles or later metallic towers, with their insulators. This endpoint of the older stations is tied up with the modern ← 567 | 568 → local distribution network, where they are finally integrated into the state grid of interconnected systems.

Documented memory

The fate of the documents related to the history of power stations is usually very complex. The company that owned a given installation was in many cases a private one, and might have been sold and resold to new owners. The Electromemory project uncovered some official documents in legal deposits, but correspondence, commercial papers, technical designs, drawings, or maps were found in different locations: unreferenced city archives, municipal libraries, or still lying in some corner at the former owners’ dwellings.

Some power stations were bought by foreign companies that started to operate very early in the history of electrification in São Paulo, such as the Brazilian Traction and Light Co, or the American Foreign Power Co., and each case treated archives differently. The same must be said of pictures, films or other types of visual documents. A significant part of the Light Co. documental material was trusted to a foundation (Fundação Energia e Saneamento), which keeps it at an accessible archive in São Paulo City. However, the surveys conducted by this project have found many loose documents (examples in Figs. 5 and 6), as well as elements of material culture (such as old instruments inside a building or abandoned parts of equipment rusting outside) in several older power stations.

Figure 5. Salesópolis power station supervisor and crew (1929)


Electromemory Archive ← 568 | 569 →

Figure 6. Perspective of Esmeril power station (built in 1912)


Electromemory Archive

Even when the power station now belongs to an organization with central archives, and one that is aware of the importance of such documents, it is not unusual that the central archives are not aware of their actual existence at the local installation. In one case, extant documents and visual material pertaining to all power stations of the Greater São Paulo City area were found in a large storeroom, in the worst possible conditions. These documents could still be integrated with others kept at various locations and form an organic body, while the loose ones could be adequately treated to become part of the locally exposed industrial heritage.

Part of the memory associated with the industrial heritage of electrification is stored in the memories of the individuals who worked or still work in the respective companies, be they entrepreneurs, engineers, skilled or non-skilled workers. In the state of São Paulo, the ex-owners and ex-employees have been particularly affected by the nationalization initiated in the 1960s, followed by privatization and denationalization that was imposed in the late 1990s. Early retirement was then incentivized and imposed by “voluntary resignation” programs.

As a result, much information was lost, relative to both history and the actual operation or maintenance practices, even damaging a tradition of ← 569 | 570 → good practice. Many dismissed workers decided to take home historical information such as photographic albums, or technical manuals, as these were being disposed of by the new owners, who were modernizing the equipment. Although this was partially reverted by rehiring the same persons in some cases, there is still a deficit of information, and any initiative of preserving the industrial heritage should undertake the recovery of memory resorting to various techniques of oral history.

Generally there was a close connection between the city and its local power station, as the latter was open to the public as leisure sites or on special festive occasions. Besides, the personnel formed families with close ties to the local community, and it is not uncommon to find even today employees that are representatives of a genealogy of workers of 3 or 4 generations attached to the power station. In this sense the memory of electrification includes the city population as well.

Little but significant museum effort occurred in relation to this industrial heritage of electrification in São Paulo. Some of the power stations exhibit small collections of electric generation machines and instruments, but without any identification or other information for eventual visitors. One of these sites (Corumbataí), with equipment now operating since 1925, was intended to become a museum, and it displayed a number of posters describing the various phases it had lived through since 1895, but the effort was discontinued. Anyway, the units visited need an integration of all the elements involved with the heritage to adequately value such industrial past. In some of the nearby cities there are local museums devoted to the historical background, but they hardly mention the electrification history, and yet this could be easily coupled with mutual benefit for the cities and the electric companies.10

Adequacy of small power plants? Memory of a transformed landscape

One of the assignments of the Electromemory Project has been to assess whether the older power stations still live up to their historical importance, in terms of significance for their communities. To answer this, the evolution of their setting in the landscape has been taken into account.

The geographical landscape of the state changed drastically from roughly the mid-nineteenth century until the edge of the Second World War. Between 1890 and 1935 at least 44% of its forests vanished, and large coffee plantations became a dominant visual feature. Various companies ← 570 | 571 → were implanted near the railroads’ axes, and the smoke going up their high chimneys made the new modernization progress conspicuous, as São Paulo’s population grew at a faster pace than the rest of Brazil, and the rural environment gave more and more way to the urbanization process, so that now many power stations sit amid blocks of skyscrapers. In other instances the stations are still located in remote areas, where the original forest was restored, and even conquered back some of the abandoned neighboring farmland.

A common denominator for practically all of the present hydroelectric stations is the low quality of water, which certainly has strongly been degraded since the time they were built. Sadly enough, after more than a century the country has not been able to treat sewage for a fast-growing population. Generally domestic sewage in natura is thrown into the rivers, and ends up passing through power station dams and turbines. Until recently industrial waste contributed to the pollution, but this has been curtailed by more severe legislation and monitoring. Anyway, the regeneration capacity of the rivers has been far exceeded since the middle of the 20th century, so that in most cities of the state these rivers have no fish, and their dark waters smell terrible. Neglect of this public health issue by administrations and lack of will to coordinate regional interest to attack the problem have postponed a solution to an unknown future.

Figure 7. Accumulated waste daily carried by Tietê River at Porto Goes central reservoir (built in 1928)


Electromemory Archive ← 571 | 572 →

One of the earliest visited power stations was reopened in 1986 and then definitely closed ten years later, exactly due to utterly dirty water that could not be allowed to go anymore through the machines; its power house was subsequently locked up, but thieves were able to break through and vandalize it by dismantling the machines to sell copper and other metals; now the premise is a meeting place for unhindered drug addicts that consume their product there. In another power substation the floating waste is so much that the operators must shut down the electric generation every morning to clean the grids, making the whole enterprise utterly unprofitable (Figure 7).

A consequence is that several ancient power stations that are running could still be of interest for public visit, yet they are not fit to attract people, despite their significant industrial heritage, and their surroundings situated in beautiful sites – charming woods, magnificent waterfalls. This is the case of several installations along the important Tietê River, which was instrumental for Brazil to acquire its vast territory in the first age of colonization, since it permitted an easy access from the Atlantic coast towards Spanish land that was successively invaded and inhabited by Portuguese-speaking frontiersmen. The dams of those power plants in the vicinity of São Paulo City receive the black, petroleum-colored Tietê River water, and spill out what is called “white foam,” a euphemism for in natura sewage as the polluted water is oxygenated by passing through the adjacent spillways.

A hundred years ago dams and hydroelectric power stations imparted relatively small changes in the environment, and as a matter of fact those enterprises have helped preserve native woods, and have provided for a protected landscape amid the ensuing destructive real estate speculation occasioned by a booming and aggressive urbanization process. On the other hand, these installations in general can no longer benefit from clean or even usable waters. On top of that, the intense drought that began in 2013 has drastically diminished the production of hydroelectricity, or even temporarily called off the operation of power stations, given their generally small reservoir capacity.

In spite of efforts destined to conserve older hydroelectric power stations, comprising their machinery, buildings, dams, lakes and the external environment, the meaningful preservation of such industrial heritage still faces difficulties of a double nature. First, the correct operation of a large number of older installations must cope with a reasonable solution to the general problem of sufficient water supply, and of assuring minimum water quality by dealing with the treatment of used waters. The recent dispute for the use of the scarce water resources, a choice between water for drinking purposes versus power generation leads ← 572 | 573 → to a dead end, since both are vital for the present society. Secondly, for a valuable presentation of this rich industrial heritage, one that inclusively could serve educational purposes, an effort must be undertaken to impart information to those sites so as to make them speak out their testimony of an industrial past that still is meaningful nowadays. ← 573 | 574 →

1 The Project is funded by FAPESP (Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo – Grant No. 12/51424-2). During its first phase it surveyed the large power station premises and archives pertaining to the period starting around 1960, when the State intervened in the sector and owned large corporations like CESP and Eletropaulo. It also covered the archives and plants of the later new corporate arrangements that resulted after the 1997 privatization and denationalization of the sector. For a review of the first results, see Gildo Magalhães (ed.), História e energia. Memória, informação e sociedade (São Paulo: Alameda, 2012), 15-33.

2 Renato F. Dias, Panorama da energia elétrica no Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Centro da Memória da Eletricidade no Brasil, 1988), 27-33. Francisco A. M. Gomes, “A eletrificação no Brasil,” História & Energia 2 (1986), 3-7.

3 Silvia Figueiroa, As ciências geológicas no Brasil: uma história social e institucional, 1875-1934 (São Paulo: Hucitec, 1997), 187-216.

4 Sérgio Silva, Expansão cafeeira e origens da indústria no Brasil (São Paulo: Alfa-Omega, 1995), 12-21; Warren Dean, A industrialização de São Paulo (São Paulo; Bertrand Brasil, 1991), 9-22; André M. Argollo, Arquitetura do café (Campinas: Ed. Unicamp/IMESP, 2004), 18-49.

5 Débora Mortati, A implantação da hidroeletricidade e o processo de ocupação do território no interior paulista, 1890-1930 (Doctoral thesis, University of Campinas, 2013).

6 Sources: Odilon N. Matos, Café e ferrovias. A evolução ferroviária de São Paulo e o desenvolvimento da cultura cafeeira (Campinas: Pontes, 1990); Wilson Cano, Raízes da concentração industrial em São Paulo (São Paulo: DIFEL, 1977); Helena De Lorenzo, “Eletricidade e modernização em São Paulo na década de 1920,” in Helena De Lorenzo, Wilma Costa (orgs.), A década de 1920 e as origens do Brasil moderno (São Paulo: UNESP, 1997), 159-184.

7 Ricardo Maranhão, Simone B. Mateos (orgs.), “O início: energia, modernização e atraso,” in 100 anos de história e energia (São Paulo: Andreato, 2012), 11-46.

8 Edgard de Souza, História da Light. Primeiros 50 anos (São Paulo: Eletropaulo, 1982), 21-50.

9 Ricardo Maranhão (org.), CPFL 90 anos (Campinas: CPFL, 2002), 30-53. Amforp later spread out to other states of the federation, as well.

10 Marília X. Cury, Mirian Yagui, “A musealização do setor elétrico em São Paulo: construção de perspectivas para as usinas hidrelétricas,” Labor & Engenho, Vol. 9, 1 (2015), 104-134.