Milestone-Nomination:Rincon del Bonete Hydroelectric Plant and Transmission System
Docket Number: 2011-05
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Rincon del Bonete Hydroelectric Plant and Transmission System, 1945
In December, 1945, much-needed hydroelectric power began flowing from here to other parts of Uruguay.
World War II had interrupted the work of the German consortium led by Siemens, but Uruguayan engineers reformulated and completed the project using United States-supplied equipment.
The large artificial lake spurred further Rio Negro electrification; availability of abundant, clean hydroelectricity was a turning point in Uruguay's development and quality of life.
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Rincon del Bonete: First stage of the electrification of the Negro River
In 1904, the Uruguayan engineer Victor Soudriers, responsible for the construction of a bridge over the Rio Negro, gained direct knowledge of the potential of the waterway for navigation and power generation.
The bridge was finally built in the "Picada de los Ladrones" in the middle-high course of the river.
However, necessary studies, level and flow measurements, installation of river gauges and the consolidation of an appropriate legal framework took many years. Political milestones included the Acts and the establishment of the Directorate of Hydrography and the public utility (Usinas y Trasmisiones Electricas, UTE) for generation and distribution of electricity.
Two projects by J. G. White (London, 1912) and then another one by the U.S. firm Ulhen (1916) were discussed at length. But they were limited in scope and did not materialize. These were projects for the upper-middle course of the river. In 1923, French Prof. Kalbermatten drafted another plan for hydroelectricity generation in the middle course of the river.
The exploitation of the Rio Negro for hydroelectric generation attained national significance around 1930. Numerous technical articles in the "Revista de Ingenieria" (published by the National Engineers' Society) testify to the interest and technical, economic and political debate spurred by this issue.
Critics argued that although Uruguay did not have any source of coal or oil, the cost of the work could be justified only to the extent that electricity demand was expected to increase, since the projected installed capacity was greater than present demand.
Finally, by 1933 the government, convinced of the feasibility of the venture and hired German Prof. Ludin to develop a project plan and specifications for international bidders.
This resulted in the planned construction of a dam at Rincon del Bonete, in the middle course of the river.
The largest project in the history of Uruguay
The estimated project cost was more than 7 million Pounds Sterling, plus the local expense of expropriation of the land to be flooded. This was a very significant percentage of GNP, especially considering that the country's population at that time was just below 2 million people.
An international bidding was conducted and there were two offers: one from Germany (A consortium led by Siemens, Berlin) and one from Czechoslovakia (Skoda Industries, Pilsen). The alternative offer from Siemens was accepted and the contract was signed in April, 1937.
On May 18, 1937 in the midst of a civic, popular party in the nearby city of "Paso de los Toros," the construction works began.
Importance to the electrification of Uruguay and Latin America
Since the Rio Negro is a lowland river, and given the irregularity of rainfall patterns in the region, it was necessary to create a large artificial lake, which eventually became the largest in Latin America, and one of the largest in the world.
Its total volume allows the plant to operate for 4 months, even without any flow contributions from the river's tributaries; two or three additional powerhouses could be built downstream, taking additional advantage from flow regulation capabilities of that artificial lake.
The dam, literally in the center of the country, was at a great distance from the primary center of electrical consumption consisting of the capital city Montevideo and its surroundings. This required the construction of a major HV transmission system.
The greater meaning of the project, however, is that a whole country, without availability of fossil fuels, pioneered the way into hydropower, breaking years of dependence on costly imports of coal and oil.
Difficulties during World War II
After September 1939, the British Navy prevented the loading and transport of electromechanical equipment from Germany. Parts were manufactured and ready to ship in Mediterranean ports, some of which had already been partially paid. The uruguayan government started feverish negotiations with England, to allow the parts to board and cross the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, the English government refused to allow shipping of any parts of the turbines, transformers, cranes, gates, etc., thereby completely stopping the advance of the electromechanical assembly.
Search for new equipment in the United States
The Uruguayan government created a special institution for managing the project and the works: the Administration of the works in Rio Negro, "RIONE". RIONE, under the leadership of Technical Director Mr. Luis Giorgi was already taking precautions and adapting construction details in order to continue with the civil works despite missing elements such as gates, closure panels, etc.
In 1941, Mr. Giorgi began negotiations with the United States of America, which had not yet entered World War II, and was the only country able to manufacture and supply the electromechanical equipment.
After Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the project was further complicated by the difficulty of obtaining strategic materials such as steel and copper.
Uruguay broke relations with Germany in April 1942 and the contract with the German consortium was canceled in May 1942 by decision of the Presidency of the Republic. In July, the last remaining German workers left Uruguay.
A loan was obtained from Eximbank (Washington) to finance the necessary American equipment. An additional Agreement was signed that permitted the manufacture and export of heavy equipment, amid strict war restrictions.
The project reformulation and adaptation to the best technology available at the time in the United States.
The original project was designed according to German standards, e.g. frequency 50 Hz, metric units. Thus, the construction of the powerhouse, intake gates, draught tubes, mounting of the embedded parts of the turbines, etc. were being completed for machines that would never come.
RIONE appointed a team of young engineers, recent graduates, to acquire specialization in the United States and work to amend the project. The program included technical visits and traineeships in factories and plants, while working with Harza Engineering (Chicago) in the adaptation and reformulation of the project.
Any dialogue or consultation with German technicians was forbidden by the war conditions.
Among many other specifications, the speed of rotation of the units was altered from 136.4 to 125 rpm and the alternators voltage was changed from 7 kV to 13.8 kV. Several modifications were needed to adapt the already build concrete structure and foundations to the Morgan Smith turbines, General Electric generators and Westinghouse high voltage equipment.
The transmission system was modified significantly. Unit step-up transformers were changed from a complete bank to a set of three monophasic units, and the rated voltage was lowered from 170 kV to 161 kV.
Importance for Engineering profession in Uruguay
During 1934, while Luis Giorgi was Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the national university, the curriculum was modified to create a Major in Industrial Engineering. This degree included the electrical and mechanical knowledge required to address the engineering issues related to hydropower generation.
When the war halted the works of the German Consortium, the first Industrial Engineering graduates were commissioned to USA to work on the project and then complete the Dam.
Those professionals were later professors and also acted as consultants for subsequent hydroelectric works, notably the Salto Grande Project.
Among them : Mr. Antonio De Anda, who specialized in mechanical issues; Mr. Franco Vazquez Praderi in the electrical field (he was an IEEE member at that time and later became Life Senior member); Mr. Victor Campistrous and Mr. Dal Monte, who were responsible for erecting the entire transmission system.
While the issues with the electromechanical equipment were being solved in USA, RIONE and its Uruguayan engineers were moving ahead and completing the civil works. Everything was ready to mount the first unit when it arrived to port in January 1945.
All tasks in the construction, installation, testing and commissioning of the system were the responsibility of solely national labor, trained and supervised by the engineers who had specialized in the USA. Only two American inspectors, one from GE (alternator) and another one from Morgan Smith (turbine) were present in Uruguay, in order for the installation to qualify for warranty. Unit # 2 was the first to be ready in December of that year.
The construction of the first high voltage line (230 km) was performed entirely by Uruguayan engineers and workers from August 1944 to November 1945.
The receiving end at Montevideo was moved to a new sub-station (North) on the outskirts of the city, rather than connected to the switchyard area of the existing thermal plant.
A ring of underground cables was built (31.5 kV) to distribute the energy throughout the city, as well. Completion of the ring was delayed during the war years, because of a scarcity of materials. Later, a second transmission line from Rincon del Bonete gave the system enhanced availability.
Many HV Transmission System studies were performed for the setup, first in the analog Network analyzer of Westinghouse and later at MIT. As a result two 20 MVAR synchronous condensers were added to the sub-station North.
Commissioning of the first unit
The project had suffered years of delays because of the Second World War. In Montevideo, thermal generation was insufficient to cope with demand as war requirements in Europe meant that good quality fuel (coal from England) was scarce and expensive. Years of using poor quality fuels (including agricultural residues) had complicated the operation of the city's boilers, and maintenance works had long been deferred.
To be able to maintain thermal units, as soon as the first hydroelectric unit in Rincon del Bonete was ready, a decision was made to split the network in Montevideo in order to connect some of the load directly to the new system.
This was accomplished in the early hours of December 21, 1945. Victor Soudriers -who had conceived the idea in 1904 and fought for the constructions for many years - was called to operate the main breaker.
At the hydroelectric plant, the official inauguration was on December 26; senior officers from the Uruguayan government and the U.S. ambassador gave speeches at the opening ceremony.
Benefits for the whole country
Electricity generation far exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts.
No longer limited by the generation capacity, demand growth reached double-digit percentages annually during the first decade of operation. The whole country benefited from the abundance of cheap and clean electricity, constituting a factor for national development and welfare.
The generating Units in Rincon del Bonete worked with capacity factors from 0.55 to 0.60 and above, for more than 45 years. In the last years of the 20th century they were renovated and are still operating as an important part of the country's electrical network. Years later, the official name of the instalations was changed to "Gabriel Terra" who from the government was instrumental in the decission to build them.
Further development of hydropower in Uruguay
Two other powerhouses were later built downstream of Rincon del Bonete: Baygorria (100MW) in 1960 and Palmar in 1982 (330 MW). For many years, hydro generation constituted 80% to 90% of the electric energy matrix of Uruguay.
In 1946, when Rincon del Bonete had just started to generate electricity, an international Agreement was signed and approved with the Republic of Argentina for the construction of Salto Grande dam. The agreement resulted in the hydroelectric development of the Rio Uruguay, the boundary between the two countries. This was an ambitious bi-national project (1890 MW) that began generating electricity in 1979.
EPILOG: The flood of 1959
In April 1959, after two months of heavy autumn rains, an extraordinary flood of the Rio Negro occurred (milenary/decamilenary) that greatly exceeded the spillway capability.
The water overflowed the dam, despite efforts to increase its height by 1 m with cement bags and the partial blast of a lateral earth dam to reduce the overflow. Downstream, the Power House was flooded and the electrical equipment was damaged, forcing its subsequent rewinding.
The civil structure of the dam gave proof of its excellent construction, as it supported the overflow without experiencing problems.
The downstream towns of Paso de los Toros and Mercedes, and the works on the new dam Baygorria were saved from total destruction because Rincon del Bonete acted as a regulator: containing the great flood, attenuating material losses and avoiding loss of life .
The plant began generating electricity again in March 1960 after the installation of new windings in the alternators. At the end of the 20th century, and after almost 50 years of operation, the turbines and generators were replaced, simultaneously rising the rated power from 128 to 152 MW.
Importance of the Achievement in Rincon del Bonete
Besides the significance of using state of the art technology in southern South America in difficult wartime, the Rincon del Bonete Project marked a milestone in the history of the country.
In Latin America, Uruguay was a premier example of a country that opted completely for hydraulic, renewable energy ("white coal"), thereby eliminating the necessity of costly imports of fuel.
The project was completed thanks to the initiative and achievement of Uruguayan engineers and workers, who had to reformulate the original project and procure the necessary material and educational resources to finish the work.
Their success was an important factor in reaffirming the sovereignty of the country and the quality of education of its engineers.
Giorgi, Luis (RIONE): "Hydroelectric Powerhouse at Rincon del Bonete, Negro River" presented at the First Pan-american Congress of Engineering, Rio de Janeiro, 1949 and also reproduced by the Uruguayan Engenieering Review (in spanish)
Sorensen, Kenneth "Hydro-eelctric Development in Uruguay" Water Power, Nov 1951
UTE: Technical Data for the Lake, Dam and Generators
Morales, Franklin; "The beginnings of our Hydro-generation" Book published by UTE, 1999 (in Spanish)
Esther Ruiz: "Memories of a Silent Profession: History of Engineering in Uruguay" , published by the Engineering School of the University of the Republic, 1999 (in spanish)
Morales, Franklin: "An uruguayan epic" published by "EL PAIS" set 2005 (in spanish)
What features or characteristics set this work apart from similar achievements?
As the German contractor could not complete the work, Uruguayan engineers decided to study the project and take charge of its reformulation employing electromechanical equipment manufactured in the USA.
The challenge (w/o precedents) required deep study, a lot of dedication, a dose of ingenuity and application of sound engineering principles.
The project culminated with the mounting and commissioning of the imported equipment performed entirely by Uruguayan engineers and technicians trained by them.
All this was made during difficult war times. The successful completion marked a very high point in the history of engineering in Uruguay.
The big artificial lake (1070 Square Km) was at that time the largest in LatinAmerica, and its capacity allows the generation of Power for 4 months, even during a drought.
Rincon del Bonete set an example as the country turned to clean renewable Hydropower, replacing burning of costly coal imports.
It set the stage for the industrial development, and the development of the electric Transmission System allowed hydroelectric energy for rural electrification and welfare of the whole population of the country.
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