12 November, 2009

Huge power failure in Brazil reveals energy policy blackout

Brazilian federal authorities have no satisfactory explanation for the power blackout that affected 18 states last Tuesday for several hours. A sign that grid management wasn’t prepared to deal with systemic risk.

Sergio Abranches

The convenient official answer is: a branch of the grid was damaged by a thunderstorm, with heavy rain, strong winds and lightning discharges. The Center for Weather Forecast and Climate Research (CPTEC) of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) could not find any evidence of such a storm at the time and place the failure happened.

The incident revealed repeated mistakes of national energy policy as well as the systemic risks that endanger Brazilian energy security. Energy planning has been poor for decades. Long-range planning has been abandoned. The 10-year government program has a bias towards high carbon solutions. The system is too dependent on power from huge hydroelectric plants. Grid control is too centralized. Grid management is poor. The system is unable to isolate a faulty line, it has no efficient mechanism to rapidly identify failures, it takes too much time to relaunch.

Brazil faces a different type of energy dependency: it is too dependent on hydro sources. The system is, thus, vulnerable to droughts that are becoming more frequent and more severe. Wrong policy choices led to an increase of fossil fuel fired thermoelectric plants. This choice has significantly increased the level of carbon emissions from the power sector, once one of the world’s cleanest. Wind and photovoltaic sources are neglected, so are biomass alternatives.

The regulatory framework prevents decentralized small and medium scale self-generation by blocking its integration to the grid. The system has to work with a large amount of surplus supply to reduce risk of shortages. Every single point of the country depends entirely on the same sources of supply.

Energy authorities seem totally ignorant of the contemporary views on energy security. Even the best experts dismiss too easily any smart-grid solutions. There is a paradigmatic obstruction to renewable sources other than hydro, always deemed “too expensive, and too small scale” to be worth considering.

This “small scale” wind alternative has, for instance, reached 13.240 MW in China, almost the same amount the largest Brazilian hydropower plant (the second largest in the world) Itaipu yields. Wind power in China is on track to beat the government’s target of 30.000 MW by 2020.

It doesn’t look like a small scale option. It looks more like policy blindness or an organized interest barrier to these alternatives in the Brazilian energy policy-making process.

The hydro bias has moved the electric power frontier to the Amazon. Building huge hydropower plants in the Amazon, apart from their environmental impact, only increases the costs and risks to the grid. These plants require huge transmission lines to reach large consumption centers in Southern Brazil, crossing enormous tracts of dense jungle, using very high towers. Servicing of these lines is costly, very difficult and prone to accidents. These lines face higher risk of being damaged by heavy thunderstorms, tornados, and lightning.

New power outages are likely to happen again. This last one was a clear result of systemic failure, and grid fragilities. In the past, energy rationing resulted from a prolonged drought that emptied the reservoirs of the major plants.

Energy plans do not consider the country’s enormous wind and solar power potential. These sources could increase energy security, by diversifying the electric matrix. They would contribute to reduce its carbon intensity, increased by the addition of fossil fuel fired thermoelectric plants. Wind and photovoltaic plants could decentralize power generation, and serve as an alternative to Amazon-based power plants. The Amazon option has greater environmental impact, higher costs (when transmission lines are accounted for) and increases systemic risk.

Tags: blackout, , , energy security,