Nationwide Blackout in Venezuela: FAQ

On the afternoon of March 7th, the power went off in all states. In many parts of the country, there has not been a minute of electricity since then to the noon of March 10th. Here is what we know of what could happen in a country that used to export electricity and still has the largest oil reserves on Earth.

How did this blackout begin? What started the event?

There is no official information. The regime only says this is an act of sabotage, and that US Senator Marco Rubio and the Venezuelan opposition are to blame for it.

From people inside the electric industry, we know that an overheat alarm was triggered between the San Geronimo B and Malena substations, which are like nodes. San Geronimo B is just South of Valle de La Pascua (Guarico state, central plains); Malena is a bit in the middle of nowhere, between Bolivar’s Trocal 19 and the Orinoco River. From San Geronimo B substation, comes the electric load to power all the TVs, light bulbs, blenders, etc. At Malena substation end the cables that come directly from the turning water wheels of the Guri dam. If you follow the lines from Guri, the country’s main dam South of Ciudad Guayana, they go North from Guri to Malena and San Geronimo, and from there it splits into several lines going to the central region and then to the rest of the country (East and West).

This particular corridor carries three 765 kV (kilovolts) power lines, which are the largest and most important lines of the country. One of these lines, apparently the one between San Geronimo B and Malena, went out and overloaded the other two, so all three died. When all of a sudden the lines went off and power wasn’t getting through, not only all those TVs, blenders and lights went off: the water wheels started to spin out of control (in the industry we call this scenario a “load rejection”). Protections systems kicked in and the turbines shut themselves off, hopefully with no damage.

Imagine the National Electric System as a bicycle. The rear wheel is all the electric load, the pedals are the turbines, the Caroni river as the legs powering it, and the chain connecting the whole system are those 765 kV lines. On March 7th, that chain broke.

The engineers suspect that the overheat alarm was triggered by a forest fire. It is mandatory to keep vegetation trimmed under and around power lines, to avoid the risk of this kind of events. Anyone that has driven by the countryside and under these large power lines would see there’s a corridor under the lines. These corridors haven’t been maintained in years and there is a very hot summer going on. In a tropical country, this means the bushes can cover a line very fast.

Is this the first blackout of this magnitude?

No, it isn’t. The last big one took place in October 2018, due to a failure in a substation in Carabobo State. It affected 16 states and Caracas. Before that, we had another in August 2017, which affected 10 states, most of them in Western Venezuela. And another one of similar extent happened in 2015.

It is important to note that localized blackouts are a daily event everywhere in the country, but the impact of these is not as dramatic. The new thing here is that, whereas before these lasted for a couple of hours, this one lasted days.

Is it really nationwide? How widespread has this blackout been?

This blackout covered most of the country’s territory and is affecting nearly all its people. Some areas were not affected because they don’t get power from these mayor power lines, but from the 400 kV and 215 Kv lines, also coming from the Caroni facilities, or from other power plants. These areas also happen to be in local grids that Corpoelec (the electric utility company) was able to maintain isolated and safe from overloading.

How can it be solved, and when?

There is an urgent need for huge investment in the sector, both in infrastructure and manpower: thousands of engineers and skilled technicians have left the industry. All the hydro turbines are in a serious state of disrepair and haven’t gone through the scheduled maintenance because that would require to turn them off, and the deficit in power generation is so big that this conventional measure would cause a serious generation shortage.

Rebuilding the system will take years. A start would be to finish all the pending projects, like Tocoma, which is years late and with no sign of being finished and to do something about all the thermal generation the country paid for but never got.
Hyperinflation affects the operational capacity of these institutions too. There are many things that need to fall in place so problems like this see a solution.

Can it happen again?

It will.

How come an entire country be without power for almost three days, so far? Is there no backup plan?

You can have backup plans or redundancy, but it is usually very costly. Sensible system designers assess risk and identify vulnerable parts of their systems; if they can’t make them redundant, they must make them robust. The cost of having more 765 kV lines would be insane. But making sure the ones we have are always on, isn’t that complicated. It just needs proper funding and reasonable management.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves on Earth. Why can’t it use oil to produce electricity?

Venezuela gets most of its power from hydro. Today, about 80% of its power comes from the Caroni river. We could use oil, but oil is expensive and dirty. Also, oil power plants can’t react very well to shocks or peak loading. They are usually steam turbines with boilers that are very sluggish. The country could use natural gas to power gas turbines, which can throttle very quickly and are insanely cheap (unless you buy them from Derwick). The problem with natural gas (which burns clean and we have tons of) is that the distribution network is also in a state of disrepair. The one produced in the West is used to be pumped into the wells again to keep them running. The gas produced in the East has no way to get elsewhere and we just burn it. Literally. Into the air.

Is the health system safe, or public transport, the oil refineries?

No. Nor the telecom. Especially for such extended periods. All these critical systems have backups, but they are intended to operate for shorts amount of time, not for days on end with no power. Hospitals quickly run out of fuel to keep the generators going and the batteries lose their charge. If the blackout is long enough, we will run out of candles.
For the telecom, another factor is range. Telecom has prepared for local blackouts. You lose a tower here, another one picks up. There is redundancy. But no telecom system can be designed for a total, three-day-long, blackout.

How did the country reach this point, in terms of its power network?

Years of disrepair, lack of maintenance and investment. From a human capital point of view, repressive management, terrible wages, and unsafe working conditions. For instance, the technicians are forbidden to talk about this. In February 2018, union leader Elio Palacios was detained because he said that a national blackout was imminent.

Why didn’t petrodollars solve this problem?

In 2009, as a result of serious sector disinvestment, the country became more and more reliant on hydro. We were struck by drought and blackouts that were also a part of Venezuelans’ daily routine.

In 2009 the State invested USD 5 billion to increase its thermal capacity by 6 GW (about 830$/kW). That capacity goal (but not the budget) was reduced to 5 GW (1,000$/kW) and later lowered again to 1.450 MW (3,450 $/kW). Typical gas turbine prices, which is what we bought, range from 700$ to 1,000$ for kW of installed capacity. Millions were squandered in corruption but, because it started to rain again, we could rely on hydro once more and we all forgot about it.

How can Venezuela rebuild its power grid?

First, invest in manpower, have them make a long-term plan, and provide them with the resources to do so. In the short term, Corpoelec needs to really get their distribution up to snuff. This is the source of most of the problems. Then it needs to increase its generation capacity, finishing off current projects and investing in new technologies and infrastructure.