Itaipú Hydroelectric Power Plant Gambles on “Green” Vehicles

By Dialogo
August 04, 2009

The Itaipú hydroelectric power plant, the world’s largest generating plant currently in operation, is working on the development of an electric bus that it hopes to start testing this year and that will join other “green” vehicles produced by the same firm. The bus represents a new phase in Itaipú’s project, in association with car-manufacturing firm Fiat, to develop a family of electric vehicles with “zero emission” of greenhouse gases. As part of this project by Itaipú, a binational Brazilian-Paraguayan firm, twenty-five cars and the prototype of an electric truck have already been manufactured. “Since we were already producing four electric vehicles a month, we decided to open new fronts in our work and develop heavy and mid-weight electric vehicles,” said the Brazilian general coordinator of the Electric Vehicle Project, Celso Novais, speaking to EFE in Foz de Iguazú, where the hydroelectric plant is located. The bus is currently in a design phase, and “the expectation is that we’ll start to assemble the first prototype on 5 September in order to start test-driving it within Itaipú on 15 November,” he explained. According to Novais, the bus is a project by Itaipú in association with Iveco, Fiat’s subsidiary for cargo vehicles, and the Brazilian autobody manufacturer Mascarello. The Swiss firm KWO, which developed the electrical system, also participated in manufacturing the cars. Itaipú has already mastered the technology needed to manufacture electric cars, and after having developed and won approval for the Palio Weekend (Fiat), with a range of 120 kilometers, the firm is working on projects to improve its efficiency and reduce its price. “As far as the truck is concerned, we’ve already been successful in around 70% of our tests of the first prototype,” Novais affirmed. The truck, a double-cab model, has a five-ton capacity (2.5 tons of its own weight and 2.5 tons of cargo), a range of one hundred kilometers, and a top speed of one hundred kilometers per hour. According to the engineers, it uses three batteries, due to the fact that it has a forty-kilowatt motor, almost three times more powerful than the motor used in the cars, which run on fifteen kilowatts. “We designed it to meet the needs of cooperatives that produce energy from biomass and want to use their excess for transport, as a way of saving fuel,” the engineer explained. “In Paraná (the southern Brazilian state in which Itaipú is located) there are a number of agricultural producers and pig farmers who have a surplus of biomass and use it to run their own electrical generators. They asked us for help because they produce more energy than they can consume,” he added. According to Novais, the electric truck costs more than a vehicle that runs on conventional fuels, but for the farmers it is more economical, because they do not pay for fuel. The engineer admitted that even though they are ecological models that do not cause pollution and are about as efficient as conventional vehicles, the great problem for electric vehicles is their price, practically double that of comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. “Since they use a special battery and components that aren’t yet mass-produced, their cost goes up a lot,” he added, explaining that the sodium battery represents almost 50% of the vehicle’s price. Nevertheless, Novais indicated that electric vehicles compensate over the long run from the financial perspective, because the cost per kilometer traveled is four times less than for gasoline-powered vehicles. According to his explanation, with 3.6 dollars’ worth of charge in the battery, at Brazilian residential utility rates, it is possible to travel 120 kilometers. “To go the same distance with a conventional vehicle, you’d have to pay four times as much,” he said. In order to reduce production costs, Itaipú is working on two strategies, developing a less-expensive battery and reducing the vehicle’s weight in order to increase its range, Novais said. A lighter-weight prototype made with carbon fiber had twice the range (220 kilometers), but its cost also went up due to the price of the material.
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