Maracaibo Has Venezuela’s Largest Thermo Infrastructure... But It’s still in the Dark

Zulia has four thermal power stations, able to provide 76% of the energy that Zulia needs. But all of them are off, and Maracaibo is being powered only by a string of electricity coming from the other side of the country. Why? Corruption and mismanagement .

Photo: Panorama retrieved

It’s fairly easy to know whether Termozulia, where the most advanced power generators in Western Venezuela are, could relieve the deficit of energy coming from the Guri hydro plant. If there’s a serious malfunction in any of the main transmission lines of the National Interconnected System (SIN) Zulia’s capital is left completely without power.

In fact, the city’s absolute dependence on the electricity produced in Guayana was evident beyond any doubt on March 7th, the first day of several consecutive nationwide blackouts in a single month.

Termozulia, comprising four thermal stations that work on gas and gasoil in cycles combined with steam, is located 20 km south of Maracaibo, and is a part of the General Rafael Urdaneta Thermoelectric Complex, with an installed capacity to generate up to 1,370 MW. If fully functional, the energy generated by the complex would cover 76% of the region’s current demand, about 1,800 MW according to José Espina, an expert in electricity distribution systems from Zulia University.

But at least since March 7th, the nine turbines of Termozulia I, II, III and IV, and 13 more in the old Rafael Urdaneta plant, didn’t contribute a single megawatt to repair the damage that affected Maracaibo’s million and a half inhabitants. All its units were out of service during the blackout and they still are, even though the state has invested around 2 billion dollars in a project that remains unfinished.

The opacity of the contracts for those works carried out since Hugo Chávez decreed the electric emergency in 2009, makes it very difficult to calculate how much was spent in the facilities associated with Termozulia. The National Assembly’s special committee that investigated the crisis in 2016, issued a report estimating at least $752 million in overprice for the construction of plants II, III and IV.

Demand drops but deficit grows

At least since March 7th, the nine turbines of Termozulia I, II, III and IV, and 13 more in the old Rafael Urdaneta plant, didn’t contribute a single megawatt to repair the damage

Since the first nationwide blackout started, in March 7th, Zulia has been getting only 400 MW from the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Complex through the SIN, according to recent statements by chavista Zulia governor Omar Prieto. In other words, only 22% of the state’s electric demand.

On Thursday, April 4th, when presenting CORPOELEC’s electricity rationing plan, Prieto, who claims that regional demand is below 1,600 MW (contrary to what experts say) said that “we’re requesting at least 300 MW more.”

Zulia has remained on edge since 2009, particularly after Nicolás Maduro ratified the electric emergency decree in 2013. Until the following year, regional demand stood at about 2,000 MW, but the progressive deceleration in the state’s oil and petrochemical production, as well as the shutdown of the metalworking industry in the Eastern coast of Lake Maracaibo, have been reducing the state’s electricity requirements. Emigration must’ve also played its part in demand reduction.

José Aguilar, a consultant in electric energy generation, estimates that if Venezuela had followed the route toward economic and social development, Zulia would need close to 5,000 MW. The size of a territory’s electric potency can be both a sign of prosperity, or ruin.

The emergency that metastasized

Before the great blackout of a month ago, the national interconnected system’s contribution to Zulia wasn’t even 61% out of the 1,800 MW required by the state’s 3.5 million inhabitants. Only 1,100 MW were available for the most populated part of Zulia, when the system was “normal”.

That explains why, for the past ten years, Maracaibo and other Zulia towns have suffered constant blackouts, a ceaseless series of outages or sudden fluctuations in electric service and long periods of rationing marked by misinformation and uncertainty.

After 2009, the deficit grew to 700 MW, a figure resulting from the difference between the SIN’s contribution and regional consumption. It’s also the product of sustained loss of local generation: the thermal plants located to the south of Maracaibo, in the Eastern and Southern coasts of the lake, stopped providing the energy meant to compensate the gradual loss of flow coming from Guri.

Aside from the thermal stations, Zulia has 45 turbo-generating units distributed across seven plants operated by CORPOELEC, 39 of which were out of order, as José Aguilar cautioned in April, 2018. As a whole, these facilities have a nominal capacity of 2,900 MW, which could satisfy the region’s electric needs and release it from its growing dependency on Guri, on the other side of the country.

But a year ago, only 395 MW of thermal electricity were being generated, decreasing until extinction. Prieto admitted, after the second nationwide blackout on March 25th, that Zulia’s thermal plants were only generating 60 MW.

Three years ago, Zulia’s Association of Engineers denounced that, aside from the fact that the most recent plants were unfinished, the shutdown of the thermal stations was due to lack of enough gas, which is surprising, considering that Termozulia and the entire Rafael Urdaneta complex are just two kilometers from the Bajo Grande refinery, PDVSA’s largest liquefied gas provider in the lake’s Western coast.

Aside from the thermal stations, Zulia has 45 turbo-generating units distributed across seven plants operated by CORPOELEC, 39 of which were out of order

The 35-year-old Ramón Laguna plant, located in the middle of Southern Maracaibo’s industrial zone, is another undeniable sign of CORPOELEC’s potential capacity to generate electricity in the region. Its five turbo-steam units are made to contribute 660 MW to the SIN and local consumption, but it’s producing nothing, according to Aguilar and Espina, and confirmed by empirical observation: when you enter Maracaibo through the Rafael Urdaneta Bridge, you can see that the plant’s seven flare stacks are inactive.

“I haven’t seen the boilers on in recent years, even though they announced that they were going to activate some of its units many times,” says Iraní Acosta, journalist for Fe y Alegría radio station 88.1 FM, and a resident of Los Haticos sector, where the plant is located. “I remember those boilers made a peculiar sound that I could hear from my home and they used to belch huge clouds of smoke.”

“These facilities are also dark at night,” says Acosta.

Maracaibo is in the dark almost constantly now. After the latest blackout, the city can’t work on scarce 400 MW from Guri, so CORPOELEC’s rationing plan can only support four hours of electricity. This new, massive rationing will continue for a month, Maduro said last week. Prieto has repeated his promise to recover Termozulia and Ramón Laguna’s generation capacity. But the city’s already doomed to live most of its days in shadows.