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Paulo Afonso (Hydroelectric station and dam)

Around 1910, the legendary industrialist Delmiro Gouveia was able to take advantage of the strength of Paulo Afonso’s waterfall and built a hydroelectric power plant.

Paulo Afonso (Hydroelectric station and dam)

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Last update: 25/03/2020

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

With the discovery of Brazil in the 16th century, the Portuguese already admired the strength of the waters of the São Francisco River. One of the colonisers, Pero de Magalhães Gandavo, in 1576, recorded that this river was navigable for sixty leagues and that, from a certain point, one could not pass, due to a great waterfall whose waters fell from a very great height. Over the centuries, many attempts to harness the potential of the so-called “Old Chico” have been envisaged.

It should be noted that Paulo Afonso is located in the geographic centre of the poorest regions of the States of Bahia, Alagoas, Sergipe and Pernambuco, and that before the advent of CHESF – the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company – the place had already served as a hiding place for the band of Lampião, who was holed out in Furna dos Morcegos and in the shallows of Catarina, a region with 6,400 km2 of difficult access and very hostile conditions.

Around 1910, the legendary industrialist Delmiro Gouveia was able to take advantage of the strength of Paulo Afonso’s waterfall and built a hydroelectric power plant. To this end, he led the creation of a mixed capital company, along with an American millionaire and engineer, and as the first step, acquired the lands located around the waterfall on the Alagoas side, incorporating them into his private domain.

He was then able to get various privileges from the Government, including the right to operate on non-productive land in Água Branca, Alagoas; permission to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Paulo Afonso waterfall and produce electricity; and a tax exemption for his Estrela sewing thread factory in the town of Pedra, located 23km from the waterfall. Between 1910 and 1911, all these concessions were transformed into decrees by the State of Alagoas, and through the efforts of Delmiro Gouveia, Angiquinho – the first hydroelectric plant – was built.

In order to manage his enterprises, the industrialist again pleaded with the Northeast States for additional concessions and tax exemptions. It is worth noting that in the case of Pernambuco, General Dantas Barreto (the governor at the time) denied these requests, claiming that they were harmful to the interests of the State. In spite of the negative response, however, Delmiro Gouveia carried out his project and on 26 January 1913, Pedra already had electricity supplied by Paulo Afonso’s waterfall. The Angiquinho plant contained three 42-metre high turbines with a total output of 3,000 volts, the first with 175kVA, the second with 450kVA and the last with 625kVA.

It is worth remembering that a few years later in 1917, while reading the newspaper on the porch of his house, some gunmen killed the pioneer of electric energy in Northeast Brazil. In a just homage given by the Government of Alagoas, a few decades after that incident, the locality formerly known as Pedra began to be called Delmiro Gouveia.

In 1921, during the government of Epitácio Pessoa, the first topographical survey of the Paulo Afonso waterfall was undertaken. However, the impulse for the construction of the Paulo Afonso I plant would arise from 1942, through the efforts of Apolônio Sales, Getúlio Vargas’ Agriculture Minister, who on 4 April 1944 proposed the creation of the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company.

In this sense, it can be affirmed, then, that the construction of the first Paulo Afonso hydroelectric plant is intrinsically linked to the creation of CHESF itself – the São Francisco Hydroelectric Company.

In 1949, construction began on the Paulo Afonso I plant. It is worth mentioning that the Paulo Afonso I dam is built in a fluvial archipelago 250km from the mouth of the São Francisco River, and that the construction of a mobile dam, on the main branch of the river, was difficult to solve. However, a few years later, work was completed on the construction of that dam and its connection with the fixed dam.

The Paulo Afonso I system was inaugurated in 1954. Initially, there were only two generating machines of 60,000kW each, with the northern line to Recife and the southern to Salvador, as well as the intermediate stations of Angelim and Itaparica, comprising a total of 860km of 220kV transmission lines.

Contracts were also signed for the supply of electric power to the cities of João Pessoa, Campina Grande, Aracaju, Garanhuns, Pesqueira, Goiana, Itabaiana, Riachuelo and Maruim, as well as to eight private companies. The system’s annual power output reached 202,572,710kWh.

Between 1963 and 1968, the Paulo Afonso II plant was built. At the time, the complex had a total rated power of 615MW. Between 1969 and 1970, Paulo Afonso III was completed, and its first two units began to function in 1971. The Paulo Afonso IV plant, in turn, was put into operation in 1979.

If per capita energy consumption was 35kWh per capita per year in 1955, in 1975 it had reached 220kWh, an increase of 529% in the period. Nowadays, the Paulo Afonso Complex, formed by the Paulo Afonso I, II, III, IV and Apolônio Sales (Moxotó) plants, produces a total of 4,280,000kW. All this energy is generated through a natural drop of 80 metres in the São Francisco river, and the waterfall of Paulo Afonso continues to be preserved.

And while its gigantic machines circulate under the impact of the waterfall, the Paulo Afonso Complex continues to feed the energy hunger of the Northeast Region, serving the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors, boosting tourism, generating new jobs, and contributing to the development of the country.

Recife, 21 December 2004.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 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, 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

how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Paulo Afconso (usina hidrelétrica). Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em:dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.