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CHESF (São Francisco Hydroelectric Company)

The Companhia Hidro Elétrica do São Francisco [São Francisco Hydroelectric Company] (CHESF) is an enterprise run by the Federal Government connected to the Eletrobras System, and is the largest high-voltage power generation and transmission network in the country.

CHESF (São Francisco Hydroelectric Company)

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 14/12/2016

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

The Companhia Hidro Elétrica do São Francisco [São Francisco Hydroelectric Company] (CHESF) is an enterprise run by the Federal Government connected to the Eletrobras System, and is the largest high-voltage power generation and transmission network in the country, and at the same time, a dream of many Brazilians.

The Company began operating in the mid-20th century, and its strength comes fundamentally from the waters of the São Francisco River, the great perennial river that crosses the interior of Minas Gerais and goes through four states in Northeast Brazil: Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas and Pernambuco. It is 3,200km long and its basin covers an area of 490,770 km2.

The Portuguese Pero de Magalhães Gandavo, who was in Brazil in 1576, was quite impressed when he recorded that São Francisco was navigable for sixty leagues. He further wrote that you could not pass a certain point due to a large waterfall whose waters fell from a very great height.

For some time, the best use of the river was debated. In 1801, naturalist J.V. Couto drew attention to the potential offered the by São Francisco to benefit agriculture in its neighbouring regions, and several inquiries concerning the exploration of its hydroelectric potential were made over the years.

As an example, in 1910, the Englishman Richard G. Reidy tried to apply for the title of the waterfalls of a stretch of the river, as well as some marginal land, which appeared to be necessary for his company’s facilities. It was a similar attempt to that of Light in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. However, the government of Marshal Hermes da Fonseca refused the application, not agreeing to the clause granting marginal lands.

The following year, a similar request to Reidy’s was awarded to engineer Francisco de Paula Ramos. But two weeks after approving it, the same Marshal had to dismiss the case, citing among other reasons the engineer’s lack of repute.

At the same time, the legendary industrial Delmiro Gouveia was already dreaming of harnessing the power of the Paulo Afonso waterfall to build a hydroelectric plant. To that end, he led the creation of a mixed capital company, along with a millionaire and an American engineer, and his first step was to buy the lands that were located around the waterfall on the Alagoas side, and incorporate them into his private domain. Then he managed to get various privileges: the right to operate on non-productive land in Água Branca; permission to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Paulo Afonso waterfall and produce electricity; and a tax exemption for his sewing thread factory. Between 1910 and 1911, all these concessions were transformed into decrees by the State of Alagoas. Thus, the industrialist created the Angiquinho plant, the first hydroelectric plant using the force of the waters of the “Old Chico”.

In 1921, during the government of Epitácio Pessoa, the first topographical survey of the Paulo Afonso waterfall was undertaken.

About two decades later, aiming to harness the energy potential of the São Francisco basin for the Northeast, study and research intensified. On 4 April 4 1944, the Agriculture Minister of the Vargas government, Apolônio Sales, proposed the creation of the São Francisco National Hydroelectric Company.

In the case of the existence of CHESF itself, on 3 October 1945, Vargas signed three decree laws: 1) No. 8,031, authorising the company’s organisation; 2) No. 8,032, opening a special line of credit, alongside the Ministry of Finance, to issue common shares; and 3) No. 19,706, granting concession to the company for 50 years, the progressive use of the hydraulic force of the São Francisco river, in the stretch between Juazeiro (BA) and Piranhas (AL), with the goal of providing high-tension electricity to public service suppliers in the area within a 450km radius of the Paulo Afonso waterfall.

It should be noted that the concession area CHESF was located in was called the ‘Drought Polygon’ and initially the Company would benefit the following Northeast states: Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco and Paraíba. At the time, 89% of the territory of Pernambuco was suffering drought, 54% of Bahia, and 39% of Alagoas.

On 15 March 1948, the General Assembly for the CHESF constitution was held, with the engineers Alves de Souza being elected president and Otávio Marcondez Ferraz technical director. As a key part of its first plant – in Paulo Afonso – the Paulo Afonso dam was built in a fluvial archipelago 250km from the mouth of the São Francisco River.

CHESF finished the plant’s pilot project on 23 March 1949 and forwarded it to President Gaspar Dutra. It was approved, and Marcondes Ferraz was chosen as the technical director to oversee the executive project as general superintendent of the works.

In 1954, the Paulo Afonso I plant was inaugurated. In it operated two 60,000kW generators. In turn, the cofferdam on the Bahian side, which would allow for the completion of the remaining gates, was still in the riverbed. To test the plant and train future operators, CHESF had the support of the companies Westinghouse, Electricité de France and Light. With the same capacity of those before, a third generator was installed later, enabling the Company to triple its regional energy market.

Apolônio Sales assumed the presidency of CHESF in 1962. On this occasion, the company would receive a considerable increase of its capital through Eletrobrás, which was intended to be the holding company of the leading power generation enterprises in the country.
In the early 1970s, the company was able to triple the mark of 310,000kW achieved in 1962. This growth occurred through the expansion of the Paulo Afonso complex (through the construction of the hydroelectric plants Boa Esperança, Paulo Afonso III and Paulo Afonso IV), through the incorporation of plants belonging to other companies and local authorities, and especially the construction of the Sobradinho, Moxotó and Itaparica dams. CHESF then had a capacity of 10,700MW.

It is worth noting that in 1970, the extension radius of CHESF already stretched for 700km from Paulo Afonso, and the system had 115 substations and a transmission network that exceeded 10,000km.

Currently, CHESF supplies electrical power to the states of Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará and Piauí, through various plants and thermal power plants, which have the capacity to generate 10,703,000kW and serve an area of over 1,000,000km2, corresponding to 15% of the national territory. The following are its plants: Piloto, Paulo Afonso I, Curemas, Paulo Afonso IIA, Funil, Araras, Paulo Afonso IIB, Boa Esperança, Paulo Afonso III, Apolonio Sales, Pedra, Paulo Afonso IV, Sobradinho, Luiz Gonzaga and Xingó.

Just to give you an idea of the size of Sobradinho, it is worth noting that this is one of the largest lakes in the world, equivalent to four times the Bay of All Saints. The reservoir, also called Lake Sobradinho, has 34 billion cubic metres of water, and its water surface area is 4,200km2 and is 300km in length. The lake formed by the Itaparica dam, on the other hand, has a total of 11 billion cubic metres of water and is 150km in length. As a whole, the CHESF reservoirs store about 50 billion m3 of water, but only 34 billion make up the useful volume available for the generation of electricity.

Powered by natural gas, an environmentally approved fuel, Camaçari and Bongi – the Company’s two power plants – are located, respectively, in the metropolitan areas of Salvador (Bahia) and Recife (PE).

Always using the most modern technologies, CHESF also seeks out alternative sources of energy. Among others, the company has invested in solar power generation systems, as well as the implementation of stations that measure the wind potential of the Northeast.

Recife, 17 December 2004.
(Updated on 11 October 2007).
Translated by Peter Leamy, September 2016.



sources consulted

CHESF. Companhia Hidro Elétrica do São Francisco. Recife, [2002?].

GOMES, Francisco de Assis Magalhães. História & energia: a eletrificação no Brasil. São Paulo: Eletropaulo, 1986.

IULIANELLI, Jorge Atílio Silva. Análise (curta) dos confrontos (recentes) do pólo sindical do Sub-Médio São Francisco: quando o inimigo é difuso e criminoso. Cadernos do CEAS, Salvador, n. 185, p. 37-56, jan.-fev. 2000.

JUCÁ, Joselice. CHESF, 35 anos de história. Recife: CHESF, 1982.

LINS, Rachel Caldas. Uma aproximação hidrográfica com as perspectivas energéticas do Nordeste. Estudos Universitários: Revista da Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife, v. 13, n. 4, p. 41- 69, out.-dez. 1973.

NASCIMENTO, Luiz Fernando Motta. Paulo Afonso: luz e força movendo o Nordeste. Salvador: EGBA/ACHÉ, 1998.

OLIVEIRA, Rezilda Rodrigues. A CHESF e o papel do Estado na geração de energia elétrica. Revista Econômica do Nordeste, Fortaleza, v. 32, n. 1, p. 10-35, jan.-mar. 2001.

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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Chesf (Companhia Hidroelétrica do São Francisco). Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.