Colombia energy crisis sparks fears of rationing, power cuts

Power lines
Power lines

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]onths of a devastatingly strong El Niño pattern have left large portions of Colombia parched from lack of rain and drained the country’s substantial hydroelectric capacity.

Now, the loss of two important power plants in the past few days has thrown into doubt the ability to meet electricity demands.

According to the national Comptroller’s Office, Colombia is just 130 megawatts away from a level of energy production that would result in widespread cuts.

“The combination of factors such as El Niño, scarcity of natural gas, the financial situation of power companies and operational stress have created a risky situation,” said Comptroller Edgardo Maya in a statement Wednesday.

The alert mirrors concern from Colombia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.

“As you know, the country has been going through one of the strongest and most acute El Niño periods in recent years, and perhaps the worst ever,” said Minister of Mines and Energy Tomás González in a press conference Tuesday.

“Nonetheless, with the measures we have taken, we have confronted this phenomenon successfully.”

But unexpected damages to key power generators have threatened the country’s ability to continue providing electricity, he said.

A fire at the Guatapé hydroelectric plant late last month damaged equipment and shut down generation, creating a domino effect by limiting the amount of water flowing to other plants.

And on Monday, the Termoflores plant shut down partially due to damage in a turbine.

Colombia also auctioned one of the country’s largest hydroelectric power plants, Isagen, in January. There was only one bidder, Canadian asset management firm Brookfield.

Officials at Public Enterprises of Medellín (EPM), the utility company that operates the Guatapé generator, suggested this week that reduced electric capacity might necessitate daily shut-offs at peak hours starting in April.

But González affirmed Tuesday that such drastic measures shouldn’t be necessary.

“We had the misfortune of [these incidents] happening right at the end of the El Niño phenomenon, and that they cut off more or less 10 percent of the electric resources the country needs,” said González, who confirmed that the government will take additional measures to ensure that energy needs are met.

Those measures include using energy reserves built up over the past year, tapping an agreement with Ecuador to buy excess energy from that neighbor country and asking electric and gas companies to create a voluntary energy savings program.

“With the analysis that we have, and the most updated models, we are not foreseeing electricity cuts, blackouts or rationing,” explained González.

It wouldn’t be the first time Colombia took drastic measures to cope with an energy crisis. In 1992, then-President César Gaviria signed a law rationing electricity in the wake of another strong El Niño period. Gaviria also decided to move the nation’s clocks one hour ahead for a brief period in order to take advantage of natural light during the day.

While Minister González wouldn’t rule either of those options out completely on Tuesday, he stated that neither measure would be necessary barring further unforeseen circumstances.

“We will listen to other ideas, and if the necessity arises, we won’t hesitate to take additional, proven measures.”


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