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Brazil's frayed wires finally short out

November 12, 2009|Chris Kraul and Marcelo Soares | Kraul and Soares are special correspondents.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, AND SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — The power outage in Brazil that left as many as 60 million people in darkness was the inevitable result of the country's failure to invest in infrastructure to keep pace with its economic and population growth, experts said Wednesday.

Government officials said Tuesday night's blackout resulted from a powerful storm that caused a disruption at the giant Itaipu hydroelectric complex on the Paraguayan border, which generates 28,000 megawatts of power, or 20% of Brazil's total.

The country's electrical grid is strong, officials said, but in this case it experienced problems with transmission.

"We didn't have lack of power generation. We had a problem in the transmission line," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said at a news conference after convening an emergency meeting with his energy minister.

Although the outage was initially attributed to a malfunction at Itaipu, the government said late Wednesday that the problem originated at a transmission substation in Parana state, which lies between Sao Paulo and the hydroelectric facility.

Most power was restored within an hour, though traffic lights remained out Wednesday morning in parts of Sao Paulo, one of the world's biggest cities, as well as in Rio and in the capital, Brasilia. Hundreds of extra police were sent into Rio's streets after gangs went house to house to rob and terrorize residents affected by the outage.

Adriano Pires of the Brazilian Center for Infrastructure Studies predicted recently that a massive blackout could be triggered by several conditions, including lack of rainfall, leading to reduced hydropower; a disruption of the natural gas from Bolivia that powers half of Brazil's non-hydro plants; or a breakdown in transmission lines.

He and others have warned for years, since Brazil's commodity-based economy began to take off, that the country's electric transmission lines had been neglected for decades, were unable to handle the added demand created by boom times, and were vulnerable to a massive outage.

While basking in Brazil's stellar economic performance of late, Lula has acknowledged that building roads, ports and mass-transit and power systems was the biggest challenge facing the rapidly modernizing nation.

The outage came six weeks after Rio was designated host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, amid concerns that the city wasn't up to the challenge of controlling crime and addressing issues such as traffic, housing and energy. Brazil will also host the 2014 World Cup soccer match.

Roberto Kishinami, a former engineering consultant to the federal government and ex-chairman of Greenpeace Brazil, said the nation urgently needed to modernize its systems to better integrate the long-distance transmission lines that deliver power to individual city grids.

"This kind of investment increases security, and, as always, that costs money," Kishinami said.

"There is an intrinsic vulnerability to the electric system when it depends on big providers which concentrate supply, like Itaipu."

The government said Wednesday that it had built seven major power plants since 2001, and that seven more were planned.

But construction of costly long-distance transmission lines has lagged.

Last year, the global financial crisis forced the postponement of several major lines, each with a price tag of more than $1 billion.

One, involving the Rio Madeira complex, was given the go-ahead this year, but it has since been tied up in environmental studies.

The financial crisis caused delays in other ambitious infrastructure projects, including roads and ports that Lula planned as part of his $250-billion Growth Acceleration Program.

He described the projects as an attempt to rectify a 25-year deficit in public works construction.

Joao Carlos Ferraz, an economist with Brazil's National Development Bank, said recently that the government was making up for the periodic financial crises the country experienced in the 1980s and '90s, which drained government coffers.

On Wednesday, politicians seized the opportunity to make the outage a campaign issue in next year's presidential election.

From 1999 to 2001, a series of blackouts hurt former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration and were exploited by Lula and his supporters before his 2002 election.

Now supporters of Cardoso's party are pointing fingers at Lula confidant and former energy minister Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to run for president next year. Two weeks ago, Rousseff assured Brazilians in a radio interview that there would be no more blackouts.

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