Apagar Paga: Energy Shortages in the Andes

˙ Voces

Prolonged droughts caused by the El Niño weather phenomenon combined with the impacts of climate change are exposing Latin America’s severe vulnerability to reliance on hydropower. Venezuela, already suffering from a deep economic recession, now faces an acute electricity crisis after a variety of energy-saving efforts failed to avert blackouts. Meanwhile, Colombia scarcely managed to avoid electricity rationing by implementing energy saving measures, but anger over impending energy shortages contributed to the president’s plummeting public approval ratings.

Water levels at Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar hydroelectric power plant (also known as the El Guri dam), which supplies 50% of Venezuela’s electricity and 75% of electricity for the capital city of Caracas, have reached historic lows, coming within 2 meters of rendering the dam inoperable. In response to the crisis, the Venezuelan government has instituted a variety of energy-saving measures – rationing electricity at shopping malls and hotels, updating lightbulbs and old air conditioners, closing elementary and middle schools on Fridays and, most recently, reducing the public sector work week to just two days – Monday and Tuesday. The government also moved local time forward by 30 minutes in an effort to further reduce electricity use. But the combined savings have been insufficient to avoid rationing, and the country began cutting electricity for four hours per day on April 25th in many parts of the country. The cuts are scheduled to last 40 days.

Water levels at Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar hydroelectric power plant (also known as the El Guri dam), which supplies 50% of Venezuela’s electricity and 75% of electricity for the capital city of Caracas, have come within 2 meters of rendering the dam inoperable.

Venezuela’s power sector has suffered from underinvestment for more than a decade, exacerbated by the nationalization of the grid in 2007, consumer subsidies, and electricity prices that have been frozen since 2002. As a result, demand growth has outpaced generation capacity growth – between 2003 and 2012 electricity consumption increased by 49% but installed capacity grew only 28% – and the country’s grid has become more vulnerable to disruptions. In 2009-2010, water levels at the El Guri dam plummeted during a prolonged drought, resulting in an electricity shortage and scheduled blackouts similar to the situation the country is facing today. Though the government spent about $1.5 billion in 2010 to install additional capacity in the form of diesel plants, many of those plants today sit idle and the country has suffered additional blackouts every year since.

In Colombia, a combination of overdependence on hydropower (which makes up 71% of installed capacity), lack of investment, and unexpected damage to power generators contributed to the recent electricity crisis. Hydroelectric plant water levels across the country were already low when the Guatapé hydroelectric plant, which provides 4.2% of Colombia’s electricity, was shut down in February after a fire burned 400 meters of cable, prompting Colombia to import electricity from Ecuador. But the impact of the shutdown went even further, blocking the El Peñol reservoir from providing water to a number of other hydroelectric plants, including the San Carlos plant, which provides 10% of Colombia’s electricity. Shortly afterwards, part of the Zona Franca Celsia thermal power plant was also closed due to turbine damage, exacerbating the crisis.

The Colombian government responded by launching several energy-saving initiatives. The 6-week long Apagar Paga campaign, or “Turning Off Pays”, rewarded end users with discounts for energy savings and slapped them with penalties for higher than average consumption. The government also shut off power at 6pm in all public buildings, and the country’s thermal power plants stepped up generation to provide a greater percentage of the country’s electricity. Ultimately, with these measures, Colombia was able to avoid blackouts, and things are beginning to return to normal. On April 23rd, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the Guatapé plant was operating at 25% capacity, though it is not expected to return to full production until September 2017. Hydropower plant reservoirs also returned to 80% of normal historic levels during the month of April.

Venezuela and Colombia are not alone in their vulnerability to energy shortages. Many other Latin American countries including Brazil and Costa Rica are also heavily reliant on hydropower. Moreover, these challenges are likely only to increase. A recent article from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies points out that there have been three “super-El Niños” over the course of just three decades, and many climatologists believe that climate change will contribute to more frequent similar extreme weather events in the future.

These countries need to develop stronger and more thorough electricity generation back-up plans and a more diversified baseload capacity to survive El Niño events without blackouts. Natural gas, renewable energy, energy efficiency measures, and energy storage can all play a part in this preparation. Northern Colombia has excellent conditions for wind energy that improve during El Niño, and wind could provide an important boost to reduced hydropower capacity during these extreme weather events. The Guajira region in northern Colombia and Venezuela also has strong solar power potential. To prepare for more severe weather events, keep pace with growing demand, and tackle the current crisis, increased power sector investment and planning is essential.

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