As power blackouts loom, experts say poor planning and ‘politicalization’ are to blame
Ecuador’s public electric company is searching for ways to avoid power outages as drought conditions in the Andes worsen. It also acknowledges that the situation could become “extreme” as the El Niño weather system develops.
“We are optimizing our generation system as much as possible to handle the drought, with the hope avoiding interruptions,” says Gonzalo Uquillas, general manager of the Electric Corporation of Ecuador (Celec). “Almost 90% of the country’s electricity is generated by hydro plants so adequate water flow levels in the highlands are essential.”
Complicating the situation, Uquillas said, is the fact that Ecuador imports 12% of its electricity from Colombia, which recently notified Celec that El Niño could force it to end the transmission.
According to electrical engineers, the looming power shortages are the result, at least in part, of poor planning. “We are at very high risk of electric blackouts, and they could last for extended periods depending on El Niño,” says Fernando Salinas, university professor and former president of the College of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. “This is a crisis created by the politicalization and bureaucratization of the utility system and the lack of an overall strategy.”
Salinas says that provisions of the National Electrification Plan, created 16 years ago, have been ignored. “The electricity sector is capital intensive. Large amounts of money and time are needed for new investments to create new capacity,” he says. “No one in the government has raised alarms as the goals we set have not been achieved.”
Part of the plan, Salinas says, was the construction of a series of small hydro plants around the country. “Only two of these have been built in the last six years, generating 100 additional megawatts while the system needs 20 times that amount to meet demand. Based on the original strategy, Ecuador should be exporting power to Colombia but, instead, we are importing from their grid because of our deficiency.”
The ambitious electrification project laid out during the Rafael Correa government has failed to materialize, Salinas says. “On paper, it was a good plan but because of problems resulting from corruption and poor construction, we find ourselves in today’s electric deficit. That plan depended on public-private partnerships and because of politicalization and corruption, these never got off the ground.”
Hydro project engineer Édgar López agrees with Salinas that the involvement of politicians is to blame for the slow development of more generation plants. “You have mayors and prefects and councilors making decisions when they should really be left to technical experts,” he says. “As a result, planning is bogged down in petty discussions by people who don’t understand the issues, and nothing happens.”
He adds: “And of courses, you have elected officials responding to residents who don’t want hydro facilities in their neighborhoods but, it must be made clear that if they want power to run their tvs, microwaves and refrigerators, we need more generation capacity.”
According to Salinas, electric bills paid by Ecuadorians do not cover operations. “The income does not come close to the real costs which means the system is subsidized by the government – and that subsidy continues to increase,” he says. “Because of this, there is little incentive for investment by either the public or private sectors.”
Customers are charged an average of 10 cents per kilowatt hour, Salinas says, when it should be 20 cents, Salinas says. “Eight years ago, a study showed prices needed to increase to support a healthy power grid, but the political will was not there to do it. At the same time, the demand for electricity grows at an almost exponential rate and there is no sign it will slow down.”
In addition to overall subsidization of the system, specific subsidies are applied to poor communities. “This is fine and I fully support it but the subsidy should be targeted specifically to those who need it, and other customers should pay the full cost.”
Salinas adds: “If this El Niño is really intense, you’ll hear the politicians blame the power blackouts on conditions beyond their control — as an act of God. But the truth is, they could have been avoided.”