Pedro Martínez (der), de 73 años, y su esposa Aura, de 60, iluminan su casa con velas durante un apagón en Valencia, Venezuela, el 8 de abril del 2013.Los apagones, la violencia, la inflación, la corrupción oficial y la escasez de alimentos son factores que podrían incidir en las elecciones presidenciales del domingo. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The government announces scheduled blackouts in a cheerful tweet, sudden failures leave a town in darkness, significant portions of the country go without electricity for hours…power outages have become as much a part of Venezuelans’ daily rituals as arepas for breakfast.

Everybody hates them, but why do blackouts keep happening?  How come one breakdown in middle-of-nowhere Guárico can bring down the whole system? It helps to think of it in terms of another of our (infamous) national treasures: good ole Caracas traffic jams.

A car crashes. Incoming drivers, looking for alternative routes, scramble down narrow streets in residential areas, which can’t handle that many cars. Chaos spreads to streets not originally connected with the crash. Give it a couple more hours and half of Caracas is paralyzed.

In the case of the power grid, the car that crashes could be pretty much anything that initially triggers a local failure: a tree falls on a power line, someone connects a cable directly to a pole to steal electricity, or yes, in theory an animal nibbles on things it shouldn’t nibble on. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: the flow of electricity in a particular sector is cut.

Just like the drivers above, electricity has to go somewhere. All electrical current previously flowing through the damaged line now diverts to neighboring lines, which can only take so much of it until they themselves overheat. The overheating, in turn, sets off protection devices which shut the lines down; you call it “blowing a fuse” when it happens in your house. Eventually the cascading failure reaches a power substation – in our traffic analogy, a substation is like a big traffic hub – and all connected lines go down. This explains how what seems like an inconsequential short-circuit somewhere in the countryside can cause a blackout in several states.

So how come massive blackouts don’t happen in other countries every time a tree falls on a power line? Well, to reliably isolate the failure, protection devices have to be checked and replaced every so often, which means 1) constant maintenance and 2) a constant supply of imported spare parts. Both things, you already know, are quite rare in Venezuela.

Another factor is the unreliability of power generation. About 70% of Venezuela’s electricity comes from a single source: the Caroní river basin. That means that if it doesn’t rain enough, you can’t trust the hydroelectric plants to generate power for everyone. It also means that if anything goes wrong in the plants themselves, no alternative source can pick up the slack.

And then, of course, there’s the economic madness. Already in 2002, when El Comandante fixed them at about 0.08 $/kWh, electricity prices in Venezuela were among the lowest in the world. Those prices have never been raised, even as the bolivars value collapses. In today’s money they are closer to 0.005 $/kWh. With power virtually free, it’s no wonder Venezuela’s per capita energy consumption is among the highest in Latin America, almost doubling Brazil’s and quadrupling Colombia’s. Going back to our traffic analogy, low electric rates parallel how the ridiculously low price of gas motivates way too many people to drive, contributing to the collapse of the system. But this increased consumption doesn’t bring any significant revenue to public power companies, which have been operating at a loss for years and don’t have the capital on hand to invest in desperately needed maintenance, repair and upgrading for the grid.

What does the government have to say about all this? Their explanation for the power crisis (too many homes with air conditioning, apparently) is neither completely incorrect… nor partially helpful in any way. Sure, fewer cars equals less traffic, but the number of cars is not a problem when a city has enough well-maintained roads.

What do we need to solve Venezuela’s electrical snafu?

We need to build a robust grid in which the power supply can still reach most users when several lines go down. We need to mind maintenance details like trimming trees and replacing old poles. We also need to update the power lines themselves (they overheat more easily as they get older, increasing the risk of a shutdown). And we need updated prices that at least reflect current generation and distribution costs. Is this doable?  Of course, if you manage your power grid sanely, have enough staff, and distribute your budget in a reasonable way.  

Apparently this is too much to ask of the folks in charge. They would rather save energy by having public employees work throiugh lunchtime and then call it a day.

 

32 COMMENTS

    • Why do you call this a guiso? Can’t Venezuela buy equipment? Or was there another side deal not disclosed on the contract or publicly?

  1. Don Alejandro,

    Do you have any idea whether someone has tried to measure the average time a Venezuelan (not Caraqueno) household spent without electricity last year?

    Here http://www.eandis.be/sites/eandis/files/documents/eandismagazine_30.pdf on page 3 you can
    read the numbers for the EU/
    In a country like the UK, it’s one hour for one year. That could be something like 20 minutes here, 20 minutes there and 20 minutes another time. Those blackouts might happen when people are sleeping.
    In Flanders the total time of blackouts for the average household is 24 minutes a year. I don’t remember when I experienced one. I do remember the company I work for had to restart some servers months ago because of a blackout in the middle of the night.

    What I hear from places such as Calabozo or Punto Fijo (the same for all secondary cities in Venezuela) is that blackouts now are for several hours several days a week. It might be the case that the average Venezuelan household is without electricity on average over a month a year if all those shortcuts were put together (Caracas is another story for the simple reason Chavismo doesn’t like coups). It would be nice to make a comparison with actual numbers between Venezuela and countries around.

    • I tried really hard to get some official data in that respect, but I found nothing. I even reached out to some friends who have connections in the industry, but it seems they don’t even keep that kind of records.

      In urban Aragua you get about one 1+ hours blackout per week, but I bet the situation is much more dire in the rural areas. A conservative estimate might be obtained by following that Corpoelec twitter account for some time and adding up all the blackouts they mention?

      • During the last weeks the sector where my workplace is located has been hit by an average of more than 10 hours of blackouts, during working, office hours.

        I work on a tech service shop, so, if there’s no electricity, I can’t work.

    • As outrageous as the corruption in that article looks, it doesn’t seem to be a defining factor to the constant blackouts. The scheme the article describes revolves around the most recent thermal power stations. Even if those were 100% bogus, made or cardboard or whatever, they don’t amount to even 10% of the power generation in Venezuela. Like I say in the article, most of it (about 70%) comes from the old hydroelectric stations in the Caroní. And most of the rest comes from thermal plants that were already installed before the current shenanigans started (players like Electricidad de Caracas).

      More importantly, the main weakness of the Venezuelan grid is not really generation, but distribution. You can have all the plants working nicely at full capacity, but with crumbling substations, lines, poles, and transformers, you’ll still get the same blackouts.

      • The corruption is even more outrageous than it looks in that article, the entire electricity industry is putrid, particularly since infamous Corpoelec crushed the last 6 privately-owned power companies back in 2007.

        By far, the absolute main reason there are any blackouts in Vzla, is precisely massive embezzlement of the funds allocated to provide adequate electrical service. The link I copied there is just the tip of that iceberg. The Billions of USD stolen by Corpoelec, or the $2 Billion for the Derwick Bolichicos and many others were supposedly allocated to solve the entire electricity problem, including of course proper maintenance and distribution. They just don’t maintain or distribute porque ahi no hay Guiso!

        In case you don’t recall all those Chavez endless speeches, trying to justify massive expenditures for Corpoelec, everyone knows Jesse Chacon and his funky promises:

        http://www.noticias24.com/venezuela/noticia/164818/chacon-habla-de-la-intervencion-de-corpoelec-es-parte-de-la-mision-eficiencia-o-nada/

        Look, if it weren’t for this massive corruption, Cleptozuela would have zero electrical problems, plus the most modern infrastructure, including maintenance and distribution grids, in Latin America. Easily. That’s always the main problem in whatever’s left of every Venezuelan industry. Even more so than incompetence, or all the excellent observations you made here about the endless “power crisis”.

        • “if it weren’t for this massive corruption, Cleptozuela would have zero electrical problems, plus the most modern infrastructure, including maintenance and distribution grids, in Latin America”

          What makes you think that? Disinvestment in the grid goes back to the 90s. (see, for example, sections 2.3 and 2.4 in http://www.innovaven.org/quepasa/ecoana26.pdf), although it was clearly never as bad as it is with the current administration.

          Once upon a time, the Venezuelan electrical system was the best, yes. But that was back when they built GURI. In the following decades it was mainly acceptable. And in recent years it collapsed.

          • Corruption has gotten a lot worse, not that they ever were choir boys. Suffice it to say that I worked with Edelca for years, (early 90’s, Cortijos de Lourdes, Spie-Batignoles- Consorcio Ligur as procurement/import manager for Linea 3 from Guri to Sta Teresa.)

            As I’m telling you, if you are trying to explain why we still have “apagones” and a big Electricity problem you must emphasize massive corruption at all levels, and from generation to distribution.

            In recent years it has gotten worse because maintenance of distribution lines doesn’t pay, “a eso no se le gana” and also because the supposedly “new” equipment to keep up with higher population and demand is actually used or from Tanzania.

  2. Fantastic! Has anyone measured non-technical losses in Venezuela’s power sector? Fiscal and economic losses of giving out power for free? Distribution of the subsidy between income brackets? Any thorough literature or analysis of the sector you could point us to besides articles on the corruption in investments in the sector?

  3. Las fallas locales (árboles caídos, tranformadores que explotan, etc) no son la causa de apagones masivos; las fallas en subestaciones de alta tensión si.

    Esto es debido a que el sistema es interconectado, para precisamente protegerlo en caso de fallas (la carga se reparte entre las líneas que estan OK), pero la falta de mantenimiento hace que esa “protección” opere en contra, al recargarse los circuitos en alta tensión y disparar las protecciones, lo cual generalmente ocurre en cadena.

    Y el problema no es solo distribución: la generación también está involucrada. Es verdad que hay exceso de consumo debido a los bajos precios del servicio (lo cual también es relativo; pregunten en el Zulia si la electricidad es barata), pero si existiera generación suficiente, con los niveles de seguridad de acuerdo al tamaño de la demanda, al dispararse una protección el sistema operaría de la manera como está diseñado, repartiendo la carga.

  4. On the bright side…Venezuela’s brave people can always count on the infamous “bombillos ahorradores”, remember?

    http://caracaschronicles.com/2015/07/04/thirteen-conversations-about-one-thing/

    Expert Venezuelan “authorities” still believe this will solve the energy problem, (unless, Chavez forbid, more ““actos de sabotaje” from Uribe’s Paramilitary forces were to occur).

    Sadly, these top quality Chino-Cuban devices might also kill you, or your budget at least:

    http://www.ideasdebabel.com/home/nuevo-caso-de-corrupcion-los-bombillos-ahorradores-por-julio-portillo/

    http://www.el-nacional.com/economia/Altos-bombillos-ahorradores-Banda-Verde_0_684531651.html

    Cheer up, though, it’s probably gonna get much better next year:

    http://www.soberania.org/2015/09/03/corrupcion-electrizante/

  5. Alejandro,

    Good explanation! I am an engineer too, and I am always looking for simple ways to explain things to the non-technical amongst us. I would add that you can also use the traffic analogy to explain line loss. Because the electrical system is lacking in maintenance and upgrades, we lose an inordinate amount of the power generated to excess resistance in the system. This can be equated to all the pot holes and poorly maintained pavement in the roads that slow traffic down and forces it to get backed up.

    • Good observation! I had not thought of the amount dissipated in unexpected resistance. It’s probably not as big as the other factors, but still interesting. And it’s a direct consequence of an obsolete grid.

  6. I think there are two problems regarding public utilities (at least water & electricity): costs & oversight. You already mentioned how heavy subsidies increase demand and puts a lot of pressure on the grid. I think most of the blackouts in the country are caused by the lack of generation capacity, the state of our power lines, and the need to keep Caracas with energy (its like a national rationing system). How can we know if the government is diverting electricity on purpose to some cities or regions? Furthermore, the fact that the service is controlled by the central government eliminates the ability of the common folk to put pressure on whoever is handling that business. My solution would be simple: even if you leave the generation and distribution part to the Central Gov., electricity should be sold to municipalities and they, in turn, charge a fee accordingly. My two cents…

  7. Question for Alejandro or others: I’ve heard it said that between 40% and 60% of the electricity used in Venezuela is generated at Guri, and that as far back as four or five years ago the turbines – having not been properly maintained for going on a decade – were starting to fail. Then we saw those horrific photos of the Guri plant in (apparently) total disrepair – basura all over etc. So what gives at Guri these days? And if that place goes down, where are we?

    Juancho

  8. And don´t forget that transformers that use dielectric oil, require regular inspection of oil for humidity, it should be almost zero… Oil with small amount of humidity (water) ceases to be dielectric and you can have an explosion.

    Never read that transformer mysteriously exploded in such and such place in Venezuela ? Well, if you dont inspect oil regularly, and have it dried or changed, you will have exploding transformers …

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