Is there a chance of a new blackout in Brazil because of the water crisis?

The lack of rain and the depletion of reservoirs have raised concerns about the possible risk of a new blackout in Brazil. The water crisis causes the country to record negative storage records for hydroelectric plants, the main source of the Brazilian energy matrix and responsible for 65% of the electricity generated in the country.

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Worry does not arise in vain. Across the country, there was a reduction of about 20% in the maximum storage capacity of hydroelectric plants in one year, from 56.5% to 35.4% between July 31, 2020 and the same date in 2021.

The region most affected by the emptying of reservoirs is the Southeast and Midwest, which reached 26% of storage at the end of July. The volume is the worst in the historical period, according to study of the National Electric System Operator (ONS), the body responsible for controlling the generation and distribution of electricity in the country.

To give you an idea, in the middle of the 2001 blackout, the average level of the reservoirs in the month of July was higher, 26.85%. For the month of August, the ONS also expects the level of storage for the Southeast and Midwest to be worse than in 2001 – the projection is 21.4% of the water capacity this year, against 23.45% of the year of energy rationing. In September the most critical situation should occur, with only 15.4% of the volume of water in the region.

The southern region, which at other times could help other locations in the country that had fall in reservoirs, is also facing difficulties. The submarket in the region of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná closed July with 47.7% of storage in the system, also the worst volume ever recorded in the historical series of the ONS. In 2020, for example, the South had 58.3% of the energy generation capacity available.

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Lowest rainfall in 91 years in the Southeast

The emptying of reservoirs is a direct result of the low volume of rain. Between September 2020 and August 2021, the Southeast/Midwest system, which accounts for 70% of the national capacity, recorded rainfall equivalent to 64% of the long-time average (MLT), an indicator used to compare with the historical average of rain. It was the worst performance in the region in 91 years of historical series. In the South, the volume of rainfall in this period was the 14th worst, with 61% of the average rainfall.

Experts predict that the situation will extend at least until October, when the traditional drought period ends. From November to March, the months usually register rain, which should at least alleviate the problem. However, the question is how the country will get through these months, and also whether there is a risk of revisiting the specter of shortages.

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The 2001 blackout

The water crisis, with lack of rain and the consequent drop in reservoir levels, raises questions about whether Brazil can go back to experiencing a blackout like the one in 2001. In that year, the reduction in storage volumes led the country to programmed blackouts and energy rationing for residential and industrial consumers in the Southeast, Midwest and Northeast regions. Other actions such as reducing public lighting and banning night events were also taken to meet a 20% reduction target for electricity demand.

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Is there a chance of a new blackout in Brazil?

The professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Vale do Itajaí (Univali), Raimundo Celeste Ghizoni Teive, says there is a risk of rationing until October, since the forecast for rain on a larger scale is only from that period on in the country.

According to him, everything will depend on the economy.

– You have to hope for the economy not to take off. It’s a paradox, but if it takes off, the economy is the largest consumer, it would end up leading to a growth in consumption, and then there might not be the capacity to meet all the demand – compares.

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In interview with GaúchaZH this Monday (30), the coordinator of the Climate and Society Institute, Roberto Kishinami, stated that the country may have “localized blackouts” in large urban centers from October, until the end of the year.

Although the government denies the risk of blackout, the ONS itself has already issued a technical note projecting a reduction in reservoirs between September and October, and stating that “in November there is practically exhaustion of all resources”. The agency proposes measures such as the use of thermoelectric plants and even energy imports to avoid a possible shortage scenario.

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Campaigns to reduce consumption

Last week, the federal government launched a campaign to reduce energy consumption in buildings and public agencies.

In the professor’s assessment, the country is already late for initiatives of this type, and even for campaigns that also encourage the population to reduce consumption.

– If there is no policy to reduce consumption and the economy grows a little above what is happening, then there will not be energy generation (enough) – says the professor.

In this scenario, the country could partly relive the 2001 blackout. But there are differences with the situation 20 years ago. That year, the system was not yet fully integrated and it was difficult to transfer energy generated in the South, for example, to the Southeast, which suffered the most from shortages at the time. Today, 99% of the system is integrated and transmission between regions would be easier. The problem this time is concentrated in the generation capacity.

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Could daylight saving time help?

Daylight saving time, which has ceased to exist since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, is not seen as a measure capable of resolving the issue of the water crisis. First, because an eventual return to the strategy would take place as of October, a month in which an improvement in the situation is already expected, with a possible return to the rains. Second, because even when it was in force, it had already had a reduced impact on energy consumption, between 1% and 3%, according to specialists.

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Thermoelectric and other sources to solve the problem

Low reservoir levels in the South, Southeast and Midwest raise concerns about possible blackout
Low reservoir levels in the South, Southeast and Midwest raise concerns about possible blackout

(Photograph: Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom, Agência Brasil)

With low hydroelectric reservoirs, Brazil needs again to resort to other energy sources to sustain the generation capable of supplying homes, industries and businesses. Despite the strong sustainable appeal, alternatives such as solar and wind energy, which have been gaining space in the Brazilian matrix year after year, are struggling to meet the entire national demand. Thus, the country ends up having to bet on increasing the generation of thermoelectric plants.

– In the case of wind energy, when there is wind, it generates, when it does not, it does not generate. Just like photovoltaics: when it has radiation, it generates, when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. In Brazil, there is no system to accumulate, on a large scale, to store this energy. Therefore, the solution cannot be just wind or photovoltaic. It is interesting to invest, wind power already accounts for 11% in Brazil, but it is always complementary. We cannot forget the thermoelectric plants, especially gas, which is less polluting, because it represents a firm energy, in which you can count on it when you need it – he says.

Another medium and long-term solution pointed out by the professor is a hybrid power generation format. In this model, power plants and substations install floating solar panels on the reservoirs and generate solar energy in periods when there is strong radiation. In this way, projects can save water reservoirs to meet the demand in times of low sunlight, and still manage to reduce the evaporation of stored volumes.

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Red flag even more expensive

As energy in thermoelectric plants has the highest production cost, the service is also more expensive for consumers. In July, the country already had the application of the so-called level 2 red flag, an additional that serves precisely to cover the difference in the use of thermoelectric plants, and whose value was readjusted by 52%. The value went from R$ 6.24 to R$ 9.49 for every 100 kWh. But the National Electric Energy Agency (Aneel) should still disclose in the coming days a new readjustment of banner 2, which could lead to an extra charge of up to R$15.

For the professor at Univali, activating the thermoelectric plants when the stocks at the hydroelectric plants were not so low could have helped the country to go through the months of lack of rain, until October.

– If we had used less reservoir three months ago and more thermoelectric plants, the price would have been higher, but it would have been able to save water from the reservoir and have a more favorable scenario – he assesses.

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Although industry and commerce are the biggest consumers and have a decisive role in knowing how the next two months of water crisis in Brazil will be, the good old economy of the domestic consumer can also help to avoid a more severe scenario of a new blackout. Turning off unnecessary lights, reducing bath time and other measures already incorporated in the field of economics continue to be important.

– If there is a lack of energy, it will be for little, so any help is interesting and may be enough – says Ghizoni Teive.

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