Venezuela’s Electricity Crisis

David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz

This week Electricity Minister Jesse Chacón will announce new measures to combat Venezuela’s ongoing electricity crisis. Venezuela has been dealing with electricity shortages since late 2009 but the issue gained new relevance this month when a major blackout affected more than 70% of the country (18 states and 70% of Caracas) on September 3rd. The blackout lasted through the day and electricity was progressively restored in the afternoon and early the next day.

That day President Maduro tweeted that the blackout had been “surprising and abrupt,” and that he was sure it had been caused by sabotage. However the September 3rd blackout was preceded by at least two mayor power outages this year: on February 13th failure of a high tension line (the 765 line is the main line in the country and is the same that failed in the most recent blackout) left 8 states without power, and on February 27th a blackout produced by a fire in the transmission station at the Guri hydroelectric dam affected 12 states.

It was also a setback for one of Maduro’s first major initiatives as president. On April 21st, a week after his contested election, President Maduro named Jesse Chacón as the new Minister for Electric Energy. In early May, Chacón made public his plan for saving energy and a series of measures that he assured would improve the electricity situation within one hundred days; he suggested he would offer his resignation if that were not the case.

Central to his announcements was the strengthening of security measures for dealing with “sabotage” cases which, according to Chacón, were behind most of the energy cuts. Also 1,000 megawatts would be added to the electric grid through the construction of new plants.

By June Chacón was presenting optimistic results for his energy plan. He announced that of the 1,000 megawatts he projected in his 100-day plan 600 had already been added to the system, reducing blackouts by 50%. He also claimed that the electric system was in the process of being stabilized and that in 6 years it would be completely stable. The September 3rd blackout, then, was a serious embarrassment for the government.

President Maduro claimed that the blackout was a rehearsal for a future “electricity coup” by the opposition. Two days after the event, on September 5th, Chacón declared that the preliminary investigations did indeed point to the sabotage of one of the towers of the line 765. Chacón claimed that a trash deposit close to the affected towers, but separated from them by a protective net, had become loose and hit the tower. Chacón’s explanation was that the net had been purposely manipulated by saboteurs.

Critics, however, suggest that the blackout had been the consequence of surpassing the limits of the system. They pointed out that limited regional blackouts had been increasing since Sunday 1st and by Tuesday the whole system was pushed beyond its transmission capacity.

Emergency powers cuts have continued in several regions. On September 12th Falcón, Yaracuy, and Carabobo were left without power, and even parts of Caracas suffered brief cuts. On September 13th several states throughout the country reported emergency power cuts, in only one of those states (Nueva Sparta) the cuts had been announced as part of maintenance plans.

As a consequence of the blackout, Minister Chacón has announced a set of measures, to be made public on September 16th, under a new plan named Misión Electrica Venezuela. Chacón mentioned more unspecified investments in the system, but put emphasis on measures that are consistent with the sabotage claims made by the government, such as a deployment of the army to safeguard the electric grid in its entire length. Chacón also declared, “The People will be linked to the social intelligence mechanisms which will allow more control over actions, internal or external, that could affect the electric system.” 

However it does not seem like the sabotage argument is convincing the public. A nationwide poll published by IVAD (Instituto Venezolano de Análisis de Datos) in July showed that 72.7% of respondents said that either the Minister for Electric Energy, CORPOELEC (State electric company), lack of maintenance, or the government were responsible for the electricity problem. Only 3.2% answered that they were caused by saboteurs. 

That is probably because blackouts have been a high profile problem at least since October 2009 when President Chávez created the Electrical Energy Ministry. By early 2010 the Chavez government declared a national electricity emergency and instituted a rationing plan with four hour blackouts in major cities and sanctions against households and businesses that did not reduce their consumption. Caracas was quickly excluded from the blackouts due to protests and because the government was apparently fearful of its political consequences.

The 2010 electricity rationing was extraordinarily unpopular and was partially to blame for the government’s poor showing in the September 2010 legislative elections. Throughout the year the government pointed to El Niño—the cyclical weather phenomenon that had resulted in a serious drought in 2009 and brought the Guri Dam levels dangerously low—as the cause.

However, the data show that 2009 was not actually the worst El Niño drought in recent history and actually followed 40 months of favorable rainfall. 2001 saw a more significant drought yet there were no blackouts (see p.17).

Indeed critics point out that the government’s own analyses already made clear there was a looming problem ten years ago. Expansion had stagnated (see pages 11 &12) during Venezuela’s neoliberal period (approximately from 1988 to 1997), ticked up again in the last two years of the Rafael Caldera presidency, and then stagnated again during the first four years of the Chávez presidency (1999-2002).

In 2005 the government put forward a comprehensive plan for expansion from 2006 to 2010 (see p.5) that would have allowed the current crisis. However, it was not able to keep up with the rhythm of expansion it had projected.

Thus while installed capacity has grown every year since 2003, it has not kept pace with the increase in demand and there is a constant danger that moments of peak demand will overwhelm the system.