Janaúba generates almost half of Itaipu, Brazil’s largest hydroelectric plant


In the north of Minas Gerais, the Brazilian savanna landscape, once dotted with cattle ranches and banana plantations, is rapidly being replaced by rows of solar panels. In Janaúba, 550 kilometers away from Belo Horizonte, solar farms are multiplying. The scenario is seen in other municipalities in the north and northwest of the state as well, where most of the photovoltaic energy generation projects are concentrated. The high solar irradiation levels and the favorable land prices have contributed to attracting investments in these regions.

Minas Gerais is the leader in photovoltaic solar power generation projects, with a total installed capacity of 6.06 gigawatts, the result of investments of R$25.1 billion, according to the Brazilian Photovoltaic Solar Energy Association (Absolar). Of this total, 3.08 GW are centralized generation units, and 2.98 GW are distributed generation. In the first half of this year, the total installed capacity in Brazil grew by 39.2% compared to last year. In terms of investment, there was an increase of 86.6% in the same period.

In centralized generation, which are farms with a generation capacity of more than 5 MW, there are 91 units in operation with a total capacity of 3.08 GW, and 64 units under construction with a total capacity of 2.73 GW. In addition to these solar farms, there are 788 other projects approved by the Brazilian Electricity Regulatory Agency (Aneel) in the state, for a total of 34.2 GW. “Soon, Minas Gerais will supply more than the entire country produces today, which is 24 GW,” said Bruno Catta Preta, state coordinator of Absolar in Minas Gerais.

Mr. Catta Preta noted that the 853 municipalities in the state have photovoltaic farms. However, only 3.2% of the 9.7 million households in Minas Gerais use photovoltaic solar power. “There is still a lot of room for growth. The big challenge is to have the connection and transmission network with power companies,” the executive said.

Currently, the networks in the north of the state are overloaded, indicating the need for investment in new transmission lines to support the growth of the photovoltaic power supply. Last week, Aneel held an auction in B3 of nine lots for the construction and maintenance of 6,184 kilometers of transmission lines and 400 megavolt-amps (MVA) of substation transformation capacity. Investments of R$15.7 billion have been contracted and will be carried out by companies such as Furnas Centrais Elétricas, Engie Brasil, and Companhia de Transmissão de Energia Elétrica Paulista (Cteep). A total of 33 projects are planned in seven states. Of the nine lots, six are located in Minas Gerais. Most of the work will be completed between 2025 and 2026.

“One of the potentials of the auctioned lines is precisely to improve the power flow capacity from the Northeast to the Southeast of Brazil,” said Gentil Nogueira, secretary of electric energy at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The secretary estimates that investments of around R$200 billion will be needed to eliminate bottlenecks in power transmission. “The planned transmission works are already increasing the capacity of the energy flow. We have the potential to add 18 GW of clean and renewable energy in the next two to three years in the northeast and north of Minas Gerais,” Mr. Nogueira said.

In Minas Gerais, the cities with the most solar farm projects are Janaúba, Pirapora, Jaíba, and Paracatu. The Secretariat of Economic Development of Minas Gerais said that investments in the solar sector in municipalities with more challenging socioeconomic conditions “contribute to the infrastructural development of the region by offering energy infrastructure, which is key to attract new industries. In addition, they drive local economy with qualified labor, job generation, and development of local commerce and entrepreneurship.

Janaúba is the leader in projects in the state, with 35 units granted by Aneel, for a total of 6.5 GW. “This is nearly half of Itaipu,” said the mayor of Janaúba, José Aparecido Mendes Santos. Itaipu has an installed capacity of 14 GW, but it should be noted that hydroelectric generation is much more efficient than solar.

Of the total number of photovoltaic solar farms approved in the city, 20 are in operation. The largest project is managed by Elera Renováveis, owned by the Canadian group Brookfield Asset Management. The complex, inaugurated this week, required an investment of R$4 billion. The company has installed 20 integrated solar farms, covering just over 3,000 hectares, with 2.2 million photovoltaic modules. Together, they have a capacity of 1.2 GW, enough to power a city of 1 million homes.

Fernando Mano, CEO of Elera Renováveis, said the complex represents almost 40% of the company’s installed capacity, and a good portion of this power is already contracted. “A large part of the energy is traded on the free market, between different customers. However, due to contractual obligations, we cannot disclose the names of our customers,” the executive said.

For the construction of the complex, which took 30 months, Elera generated 11,000 jobs — a significant number for a city of 70,700 inhabitants, according to the 2022 census. Of those hired, 70% are residents of Janaúba and neighboring municipalities. “Starting next month, Atlas [Renewable Energy] will hire 2,500 people for construction works. Then Shell will come. It is a considerable volume of work, with an improvement in our economy,” the mayor said.

Atlas has a project to install in Janaúba a 902-megawatt-peak solar, which is expected to be completed in 2025. The company already has a contract to purchase electricity from Albras Alumínio Brasileiro (a joint venture between Norway’s Hydro and Japan’s Nippon Amazon Aluminum). In Paracatu, Atlas has a project to build a 438 MWp complex, which is expected to be operational this year and will also supply energy to Albras. The company also owns two complexes in Pirapora, one of 358 MWp, which supplies energy to Anglo American, and another of 239 MWp, which supplies power to Unipar.

Shell, in turn, has a project with Gerdau for a 260-MWp farm. Half of the energy produced will be supplied to Gerdau and the rest will be sold on the open market through Shell Energy Brasil. Shell signed a memorandum of understanding with the Minas Gerais government in 2022 to invest $1.5 billion in solar plants with a total capacity of 2.1 GW, to be built between 2023 and 2025.

In Janaúba, residents have seen changes with the arrival of Elera. The road that connects the city to the rural district of Quem-Quem, where the project is located, was improved. There were 160 buses on the road every day, picking up and dropping off workers at the construction site. Of the 11,000 workers employed during the construction phase, 5,000 came from neighboring municipalities.

The city’s tax revenue, which was R$226 million in 2020 before the construction, increased to R$314 million in 2022. The mayor highlighted an agreement with Elera for R$1.7 million for the construction of a multisport gymnasium for the city and an investment of R$4 million to renovate the Janaúba Hospital. “The greatest benefit will come from the transfer to the municipality,” Mr. Mendes added.

(The reporter’s travel costs were covered by Elera Renováveis.)

*Por Cibelle Bouças — Janaúba, Minas Gerais

Source: Valor International