It's not cheap, but it can bring the solutions we need.

Photo: Araf Energy

Solar Power Gains Ground in Venezuela’s Energy Crisis

Venezuela should have been filled with photovoltaic panels a long time ago. But the electrical emergency is opening up a small path for this energy source, and the state hasn’t taken advantage of this technology yet

In 2005, hybrid systems that mixed energy from the national electric grid with solar energy, eolic energy, and diesel fuel backup started being installed in Venezuela, with the Sembrando Luz program from the Foundation for Development of the Electric Service (Fundación para el Desarrollo del Servicio Eléctrico, FUNDAELEC).

It was a project designed to provide energy for communities far off the grid, in protected areas, and in national parks, from the natural resources available and the needs of these communities. So households, outpatient clinics, schools, and park ranger posts would all have electricity.

Five years later, 18 out of 23 projects in the Alta Guajira and in the states of Zulia, Falcón and Mérida began. The use of solar power in Venezuela proved to be a sustainable, eco-friendly, and cheaper alternative than putting up cable installations.

Then the country prepared for more, but FUNDAELEC was declining: it was no longer part of PDVSA and it became part of CORPOELEC, the state institution for electric power. So the projects for aiding isolated communities in the country were abandoned.

During the first trimester of 2016, with electric fluctuations, rationing, and power outages in some areas of Venezuela, the Scientific Institute Francisco de Miranda, in Budapest, published a report about the technical possibilities and the low cost of photovoltaic energy in the country.

The Institutea binational organization of Venezuelan and Hungarian universities backed up by Chinese corporationssparked hope again by suggesting solar panel construction, training for renewable technology and strengthening production lines in Venezuela. The goal: producing unlimited electricity in the country. The promise: Venezuela was to have the most modern, clean and profitable electric network in Latin America.

The idea was another hybrid system and its resulting energy would be capable of boosting the National Electrical System, relieving the load of Guri dam at a cost that could be covered even with an oil price of $15 per barrel.

There was a need then for “regular glass panels with a semi-conductive photovoltaic layer, capable of generating electricity from simple industrial gas, of which 95% is produced in Venezuela, and the other 5% is provided by countries such as Russia or China,” according to Telesur’s website on March, 11th, 2016.

Four years after that report, the goal and the promise have gone up in smoke.

In July 2019, after two national blackouts, an alternate project involving solar panels was presented in front of the National Assembly’s Permanent Commission for Administration and Services, by a group of engineers from Zulia. As soon as the spirit was up for a pilot plan in the “San Rafael” Clinic, it was quashed.

Now, in 2020, and amid an electricity crisis, when power plants don’t have fuel to start anymore, 80% of our electric power is still generated by the hydroelectric energy from the Guri systemwhich is running at only 30% of its capacityand 30% runs on auxiliary systems, even though we have an ideal solar radiation level (5.1 kw x m2) in 20% of the Venezuelan territory.

This means that a country with ideal climate conditions to install photovoltaic energy production systems at a large scale hasn’t been able to do so.

A new threat is looming now: a section of one of the three 765 kv main lines in the Venezuelan electrical system is out of service, said engineer José Aguilar on October, 4th. The electric transmission for the entire country is limited to roughly 2,000 mw, the equivalent amount of electricity used in Caracas.

But new ideas try to light up the darkness.

More Radiation, Less Darkness

Just like in the Venezuelan plains, electric outages with no prior warning on the Venezuelan Andes can go on for over eight hours at a time. But the use of home generators, which used to be a solution, is now a problem and a burden because of the fuel shortage, its distribution priorities, and the cost if you do get your hands on it.

To put it another way: to have a diesel-run generator working for eight hours daily, some eight lts. of fuel would be used (per day, that’s $14 to $21 daily). This is for a machine that, with minimum use, is expected to have a lifespan of a year and a half.

On the other hand, the lifespan of a solar panel can be over 20 years with minimal maintenance.

Solar radiation is free, but using it is very expensive.

“When people realized that they were building a cemetery of diesel fuel generators, the solution became storing energy in batteries, taking it from the grid or through solar energy,” Mahley Márquez explains, electrical engineer and CEO of Araf Energy, a company from Mérida. “People began to look for these types of solutions. You could say that it started in 2018 and had a boom in 2019. It’s an up and coming business because of the electricity crisis, but if we want to go a step further, it’s one of the possible solutions seeing that the national electric grid isn’t stable.”

In fact, it’s a successful solution, as tested in the hybrid and autonomous system installed by Márquez in the Los Conejos highlands, Mérida State, in 2014. Each of the 24 systems installed in houses when the engineer was leader of the FUNDAELEC project, have been functioning without interruptions, needing maintenance just once a year. The installed panels still take in all the solar spectrum; from ultraviolet to infrared.

The El Quinó village has 34 systems installed in houses in full working order too, but in spite of the benefits, the installation program stopped. The western region, where the Andes are, is still the one enduring more electrical mishaps.

For instance, a photovoltaic system by the Dutch company Victron Energy or Morningstar from the USAbrands whose distribution in Venezuela has been approved for Márquezfor a house needing a backup time of around six hours to power light bulbs, internet modem, router, laptop or PC, and an outlet for a low energy electronic device, costs around $3,700. This doesn’t include the fridge, which would boost the price to up to $6,100.

The engineer explains the difference: Dutch systems, because of their equipment’s versatility and practicality, are the best choice for household problems, while the American ones are more robust and better suited for the requirements in the countryside, oil platforms, and high risk areas.

The latter could provide a solution to the circular problem of the thermoelectric crisis, deeply linked to the oil industry which shuts down because there’s no diesel fuel, and since no oil is being extracted, there’s nothing to refine.

State investment is necessary. Márquez points out: “You need credits, financing, an incentive for this clean energy and what it is, to improve the electrical situation in the country. All over the world, the big, medium and even small projects on photovoltaic energy, because of their cost, are funded by the state. Private bank financing is impossible right now in the country, but there should be credits available for the companies and the consumers for solar energy.”

In other words: Araf Energy, like all other small businesses, could mass produce their immediate and long-lasting solutions for the Venezuelan electrical crisis, but if they don’t have the funds to stock themselves, how can they?

For Manuel Ponte, electrical engineer, the lack of technical assistance is another issue that holds back the installation of alternate energy systems:

“It’s important to have good technical assistance to put together a project which will satisfy the needs and will help decide which equipment is the most convenient, taking into account the investment capacity. People look for information on how these alternate systems work, but they don’t take into consideration the numbers or the design needed for a state-of-the-art energy system, at a minimum cost.”

But even after designing, paying and importing the best equipment, competition looms: pirated services.

But even after designing, paying and importing the best equipment, competition looms: pirated services. Márquez warns:

“Venezuela doesn’t have consumer protection controls. Right now, customs are very lax and they bring in low quality equipment. There’s a lot of people who have been deceived. They should reinstate the usual controls we used to have: in order to sell equipment or a project, it had to go through the Engineers Collegiate, the Mayor’s Office, the electric company, and they would check it and give it a thumbs up. The client knew they were buying safely because it had been approved by a person who knows about it.”

The regular quality controls that Márquez describes were left in the shadows now, so there’s little guarantee that both the equipment and the engineers or dealers are of good quality and they comply with the rules of the national electric code.

In Maturín, Monagas State (eastern Venezuela), Anderson Da Silva, chairman of EKOV Energía y Comunicaciones, agrees with Márquez: “I really believe that this is the right time to invest in this type of energy in Venezuela. People are catching on to how reliable it is.”

But above all, it’s a good moment because the gradual increase of manufacturers also increases the competitiveness in prices all over the world. Ponte names some relevant examples: Spain not only created an investment stimulus, it also reduces taxes and consumer costs for those using alternate energy systems. Chile has a thermosolar plant which produces 1,000 mw and services 450,000 households.

The dealers’ responsibility is key. Da Silva is emphatic when he says that “companies in this trade should increase their publicity and information on the advantages of using alternative energy in Venezuela, and not just see this as a commercial activity. Widespread growth depends a lot on this.”

The eastern region is influenced by one of the best solar radiations in the country and little technology to take advantage of it, so Da Silva offers a kit made up of a solar panel, a battery, a controller and inverter with a 48 hour backup to power five lamps, a television set with a decoder and cell phone chargers. The price: $1,300.

This is another solution that, while it lightens the anguish brought by the power outages, it’s still domestic and temporary, and can’t really take on a reality: the blackouts in Monagas go for two to eight hours at least three times a week without warning. 

A Dark Future?

The general blackout on October 6th not only affected Zulia, a state that has had to deal with power rationing that lasts up to 12 hours at different moments throughout the day and affects 92% of residents since 2017. Mérida, Falcón, Portuguesa, Lara, Carabobo, and Caracas also registered a brownout.

A few Venezuelan communities already enjoy the benefits of solar power.

Photo: Araf Energy

Besides, on August 23rd and September 6th, the TG2 and TG13 plants of the Termoeléctrica “Juan Bautista Aismendi” in Nueva Esparta (Margarita island) stopped working. Rationing on the island goes on for up to eight hours each day now, although electricity has been out for even ten days before. The solution: authorities have requested companies, stores, and the community to “self-generate energy within their means.” Who can achieve this and for how long? Which alternative energy equipment capable of solving so many issues is available in the Venezuelan market? And how much is it?

Solar radiation is free, but using it is very expensive.

Turning on the light has become a challenge for the government. The thermoelectric capacity is now down to only 10% nationwide, meaning 1,500 mv to 2,000 mv, when its full capacity is 15,000 mv, as Víctor Poleo, an electrical engineer and Vice Minister of Energy and Mines in 1999-2001, told EFE.

On October 12th, for instance, areas in Miranda, Vargas, Aragua, Carabobo, Yaracuy, Lara, Zulia, Mérida and even the metropolitan area of Caracas had no electricity. The Venezuelan capital goes through at least 20 power outages per month, ranging from eight to 60 hours long.

In this crisis, as Ponte explains, it doesn’t make sense to install electric backup systems when there’s no electricity to feed them. It’s time to normalize the use of photovoltaic cells or modules, like the ones used for wristwatches, flashlights, portable chargers and even calculators. The engineer says: “It’s incredible, but in Venezuela, in the industrial region of Paraguaná, we have a solar panel factory, but it doesn’t have any staff. There’s materials in the storage facilities to produce for three years and supply the entire country with alternative systems. Besides, we have the license to assemble Bornay air generators and the rights to sell in America, and this factory is also in Paraguaná.”

The Kamarata Valley, on the skirts of the Auyantepui, is already doing it.

After the constant failures from the hydroelectric system installed in 1960, Eposak and Otegi Group, with support of the British Embassy in Venezuela, installed photovoltaic cells with electric energy backups capable of handling the requirements of the outpatient clinic, high school, and sustainable tourist activities. The equipment is now owned by the community in the region, who have received training for its maintenance.

It’s a model that can be repeated. It’s been ten years since the electric emergency was declared; electric saving plans and investments in thermoelectric energy have only resulted in Venezuela producing 64% less energy than it did before the decree. We’re already in a crisis and without electricity there’s no way to glimpse an economic revival. Márquez explains very well: “A country can only grow if it has energy.” 

Right now, there’s neither revival nor energy, and if we continue like this, we won’t even have a country.

Kaoru Yonekura

Venezuelan writer and the winner of the Gabo Foundation Journalism for Solutions scholarship.