What’s the real story behind Ecuador’s electric power shortage? Will the rolling blackouts get worse before they get better? When will they end? Probably most important: Is this something we will have to live with for years to come?
The answers paint a “bad news, good news” picture.
First, it is important to understand the factors behind the energy crisis.
The most important one is the drought that began in July. This is critical because Ecuador gets 80% of its electricity from hydro electric generation. According to weather records, the drought is the worst in 45 years. It is not just an Ecuadorian drought but one that is affecting all of the Andean countries, from Venezuela to Bolivia. Meteorologists say that it is the result of the El Nino in the Pacific. Although El Ninos are well known for producing floods, they can also cause droughts, depending on their particular characteristics.
The second factor is also influenced by the drought. For years, Ecuador has relied on Colombia for much of its electricity. The problem is that much of Colombia’s power is hydro, like Ecuador’s. At a time when Ecuador has a short-fall, Colombia has less to sell. As of last week, Colombia was sending Ecuador less than 25% of the pre-drought supply.
A third factor, and one that is not an act of nature, is that Ecuador has done a lousy job of planning for its energy needs. Many are blaming this on President Rafael Correa but the failure must be shared by all governments of the last 20 years. The fact of the matter is that the country has relied for far too many years on the Paute hydro electric plant near Cuenca. When the Paute plant opened more than 20 years ago, it supplied 75% of the country’s power. Today –when rainfall is adequate and the reservoir is full– it supplies about 37%.
Although Correa may deserve only a small share of the overall blame for the crisis, he got himself into trouble in late Nov. for his prediction that blackouts would end on Dec. 15. Later, when he was forced to go back on his word, he put the onus on his electricity minister for being overly optimistic. Incidentally, the minister has since resigned.
The good news lies in some of the same factors that have created the crisis.
Being of historic proportions, the drought is something that should only occur a couple times in a century — these are the first drought-related power shortages in more than 14 years.
More important, despite poor planning, there are new hydro electric plants either under construction or on the drawing boards. The huge Coca Coda Sinclair plant near Napo, in the early stages of constructions, will generate more than twice the electricity of the Paute plant and, according to its proponents, make Ecuador energy independent. Besides Coca Coda, the hyrdo production facility at Mazar, part of the larger Paute project, will go on line sometimes in the spring, boosting Paute production my almost 50%. Even in another drought situation, the added capacity should be able to supply the country with a continuous power supply.
Not to be overlooked is the “wake-up call” provided by the current crisis. Within the last two months, the country has allocated millions of dollars to upgrade the national power grid and talks are underway with electric utilities in Colombia and Peru to improve cross-border connectivity.
My optimism is guarded, of course, and I am well aware of Ecuador’s unofficial motto: Where everything is possible but nothing is for sure. We will see how our latest crisis plays out.
Eadon Chartres is an archeologist who lives and works in Cuenca.