For the first time in well over a year, water levels are rising at Guri Lake, the source of more than 70 percent of Venezuela’s electricity. At last, we can stop worrying that the power grid will collapse in 2010. If the weather forecasts are right, there will be plenty of water to get us through the year. Looking forward to 2011, things are less cheery.
Traveling last week in Guayana I was impressed with how well understood it is among workers in the metals and electricity industries that 2011 is the crunch year, not 2010. The problem is simple. The crisis provoked no energy savings in the residential and commercial sectors, according to the monthly reports from CNG, which runs the power grid (and has now deleted the damning monthly reports from its website). The only sector that conserved was industrial, and even there, savings were achieved in only a small number of plants, entirely by slashing output (without layoffs). Reduced activity and shutdowns at a few iron, steel and aluminum plants saved the rest of the country its comfort.*
However, recovering the dam is going to be a long slog. Today’s report showed the reservoir has gained 24 cm since bottoming at 20 percent of its useful volume April 14. We need another 1,300 cm to get to the level we were at Jan. 1 and another 1,300 cm again to fill the reservoir, as it should be around New Year’s. At current electricity consumption and generation levels, that will never happen. Average water consumption from the dam this year — after conservation was imposed and water consumption rationed around New Year’s — has been 4,574 cubic meters a second. Average inflow into the dam in an average year is 4,500 cubic meters a second, Miguel Lara, the former president of the grid regulator (then known as OPSIS), told me in a phone interview. That means that at this year’s average water consumption and with average rains, the water level will be lower a year from now than it is now. With above-average rains, we can gain a few meters, but there are complications that make the situation worse.
First, industrial rationing has to end at some point. Venalum, Alcasa and Sidor can’t remain at such low production forever while maintaining full payrolls with (by Venezuelan standards) excellent pay and benefits. Managers at Sidor say the laborers who work in the heat of the steel mill make 7,000 to 8,000 bolivars a month, well above the salary of a Venezuelan accountant or doctor. The mills run luxury buses to and from the job sites. They have made some cuts in response to the losses they started to incur with the North American housing slowdown: they have slashed medical insurance and this year, in a local scandal, stopped providing new uniforms for their company sports teams. Cuts like that are no substitute for making and selling aluminum and steel.
Second, elections are coming. Normally, the Chavez government pushes consumption-oriented policies before elections to try and soothe the population. More home appliances will increase, rather than decrease, power use.
Third, when the dam levels are as low as they are now, you need to use more water to get the same amount of power. Edelca, the power utility that runs the Caroni River hydro complex, has squeezed 11.8 kilowatt-hours of electricity out of every cubic meter of Guri Dam water in the first half of April. That is down 8 percent from the 12.8 kWh of that Edelca generated from each cubic meter in the first half of December 2009. This is because when the dam is more than half full, the pressure is much greater than now, with far less weight forcing water through the turbines. In order to keep power generation average level we’ve had for the past few months, Edelca may have to increase water consumption from the dam.
Edelca cut flows through the dam from over 5,150 cubic meters a second in December to about 4,330 this month. It will take a lot of arguing for the managers there to convince Caracas not to boost flows again now that the rain is falling.
There are only two ways to escape this situation. First would be to implement effective energy-saving measures, such as water-heater timers, solar water heaters, enforcement against excessive air conditioning, a massive program of weatherization of home and offices, energy audits for small industry, encouragement to shut off televisions, requiring all residences to provide clothes lines, and increased use of natural gas for cooking. While the propaganda calling for power savings has gradually been getting better, none of these ideas are likely to be put into effect.
The other alternative is to increase power generation. This is the government’s plan. It has pledged to bring between 4 and 6 gigawatts of generation on line this year, depending on who is speaking and to what audience. Among the plans:
Generation barges parked by the Tacoa generation plant that serves Caracas. It’s unclear what’s happening with them, but this week state oil company PDVSA said a barge arrived in Lake Maracaibo to provide 103.5 megawatts of power starting at the end of May.
Planta Centro recuperation. South America’s biggest thermal generating plant, a 2,000-megawatt fuel-oil and natural-gas-powered beast, was supposed to be operating at increased capacity by now. Instead, it has continued to struggle. It has had at most one of its five turbines in service since March 26. It was completely down April 5-11. The challenges of getting it on line were epitomized in a rumor I heard from Jose Manuel Aller, a professor at Simon Bolívar University in Caracas. He said repairs on one generator were almost complete on a turbine earlier this year but the startup was rushed and technicians failed to put oil in a pump. The pump seized up and needed to be replaced. Given Venezuela’s difficult import environment, this took forever.
Wind turbines on the Paraguana peninsula. Starting next year, 70 1.3-megawatt windmills 70 meters high are supposed to start producing 100 MW of generation. (Note that this press release for the first time quantifies how much diesel is used to generate 100 MW of power in a thermal plant: about 2,000 barrels a day, it says.)
880 MW at Sidor. Former CVG president Rodolfo Sanz said 440 MW worth of turbines were on their way from the USA and that they’d be in service in May. The Nueva Prensa de Guayana reported that Sanz said the first 175 MW of plants would arrive by the end of February and the remainder two weeks later. Delays kicked in at once. This undated press release, posted between March 20 and April 5, says the second ship had just arrived. The Sidor power plant still has a long way to go before it’s operational; I can’t see how it will happen in May as promised.
So we shall see. I think that politically, Chavez has to end the rolling blackouts by August or face serious electoral consequences. I don’t see the grid getting more than about 200 MW of new generation before then. So I think Guri will recover a very limited amount this year. There are those who are more pessimistic, and believe Guri will end the year at 20%. I say at least 30%, maybe even 40. In any case, next year, there will be no room for the failures of conservation and delays in new construction that we’ve seen this year. The country will need to consume less, while running its basic industries, and with another 444,000 Venezuelans demanding their fair share of the electrons.
*Anglo American Plc’s Loma de Niquel mine in Aragua state used more power in February than it has in any month since May, according to CNG’s monthly reports.