Using diesel as a cleaning supply

Today, we have a guest post on the electricity crisis from the man they call Setty.

Friday in Caracas I ordered a coffee at a cheap little restaurant, but there was none. They’d turned off their espresso machine (and the pizza oven too) to save power. They had also had started closing at 4 every day instead of 7.

Such measures have become normal in the capital, where businesses are taking seriously the threats to double electric bills and eventually cut power from any heavy user who doesn’t conserve. Air conditioning at many offices, restaurants and even movie theaters is being kept to a minimum. A dozen neon signs inside every panaderia hang in darkness as workers fan themselves against the heat from panini grills and overworked refrigerators.

The situation transforms in the provinces. A few nights ago, I boarded a bus to Guayana from a terminal where people sweated in a slowly cooling darkness, lights too low to read. The difference was obvious at the rest stops, where overwhelming ranks of white fluorescent tubes gave the appearance of daylight. We eventually arrived at a brilliantly lit terminal to find air conditioning cranked to such a low temperature that a ticket saleswoman’s teeth literally chattered while we spoke.

I took a camioneta to the CVG building but thought I’d have a cup of coffee before visiting. Air conditioning at the little coffee shop was turned up to a temperature almost as arctic as the bus station’s — and the door was propped open. I went to a panaderia and waited for the empanadas to come out of the fryer. While there were no lights in the bathroom, the neon sign and flat-screen TV turned on promptly at 7:30 a.m.

Later in the day, for lunch, I went to an arepera with a roll-front wall facing a strip mall parking lot. Inside, the air conditioner kept the maybe 100 square-meter cavern chilled against mid-day heat. I asked the waiter if they didn’t have rationing in Puerto Ordaz and he said it was rationing by area.

Of course, I’d forgotten. The utility simply turns off the lights for a few hours a day. No wonder everyone turns up the AC even more while they have the chance, so they will stay comfortable during the "rationing" period. No wonder residential consumers have yet to save any significant amount of electricity nationwide.

The lack of conservation incentives extended to the overnight bus itself. Like all luxury coaches in Venezuela, the interior temperature was kept at about 10 degrees all night. I once asked a driver why they did that, and he told me it was to keep smells down. Turns out it’s worth spending the $0.60* it costs to burn 20 extra gallons of diesel on the course of a long trip rather than paying much more in labor and supplies for a cleaning crew to clean the bus’s upholstery more often. That is to say, they are responding to an economic incentive and, functionally speaking, using subsidized diesel as a cleaning supply.

The nationwide lack of pricing incentives is an insult to the intelligence of the Venezuelan people. It’s like the utilities don’t think people can figure out how to conserve on their own in the best, least disruptive manner possible, and rather than trust people to make their own decisions, the decision is taken from on high to simply cut the lights. No wonder the rationing has been working so well, with the only significant conservation in February coming from the heavy industry served by Edelca.

*Under prices set in roughly 1998, diesel is 0.054 bolivars a liter, or 0.204 bolivars a gallon. At the current rate of 7.15 bolivars to the dollar, that is just under 3 cents a gallon, less than 1% of the going rate in the U.S.