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World's largest dam helps Brazil cut oil bill

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Question: Where is the world's largest hydroelectric facility?

Answer: In Brazil, of course.

In Brazil, of course?

Yes. For this is a nation that deals in superlatives.

But even for Brazil, the Itaipu Dam on the Parana River bordering Paraguay was a huge undertaking. The biggest construction project in Brazil's history, it eventually will produce 12.6 million kilowatts, or the equivalent of about a dozen nuclear reactors.

Some Brazilians worried that the $12 billion project, which officially opened this month, might flounder. Yet most agreed it was necessary. Brazil's petroleum imports alone gobble up $10 billion a year worth of export earnings.

Itaipu's 18 massive turbines eventually will take care of the electrical energy needs of Brazil's industrial southland - the states of Sao Paulo, Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul - at least until the end of the century. Energy for the southland is critical because two-thirds of Brazil's gross domestic product comes from these states. Neighboring Paraguay is an equal partner with Brazil in building the dam.

When Itaipu is fully operational in 1988, those 12.6 million kilowatts of energy (also equal to 600,000 barrels of oil daily) will be more than enough for Brazil's southland and for Paraguay.

Some of the power conceivably could be exported, perhaps to Uruguay or Bolivia. But other Latin American countries are in their own races to overcome an energy shortage - except, of course, for oil-rich Mexico. Hydroelectric facilities now in operation, under construction, and on the drawing boards of half a dozen Latin American countries aim to double or triple energy generation during the next decade to provide for the region's exploding population, urbanization, and industrial expansion.

Although there is a world oil glut, most Latin American governments do not feel assured that petroleum will remain abundant and that the price will remain even.

Itaipu will cost upward of $20 billion when transmission wires, transformer stations, and other facilities are included, but Jose Cavalcanti Costa, head of the Itaipu construction consortium, says, ''This is cheap when you look at the $ 10 billion it is costing Brazil a year to import petroleum.''

Other Latin American nations reason the same way.

There are a number of strong rivers in Latin America - and therefore large hydroelectric potential. Estimates made available by international agencies suggest that less than 10 percent of the region's hydroelectric capacity is being tapped.

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