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)

What's the deal with blackouts?

How one overloaded circuit in San Juan de los Morros can cause a blackout in Maracaibo.

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.


Alejandro Gutiérrez

Venezuelan engineer. B.S. and M.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering at La Simón and Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Università di Bologna. Researcher and teacher at the University of California, Merced. Technocracy dreamer. Science Fiction fanatic, self-appointed Tolkien scholar, and overall nerdy person.