Some of you may have heard earlier this week that parts of Brasil experienced a major blackout lasting more than 5 hours. The blackout affected major cities like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte, among others and inconvenienced somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 million people. This is roughly comparable to the number of people affected by the blackout experienced in the Northeast USA and Eastern Canada in 2003.
The general cause for the blackout in Brasil is attributed to the shutdown of the Itaipu Dam, located on the Brasil | Paraguay border. The shutdown of Itaipu, currently the world’s largest hydroelectric facility, is the first since its opening in the 1984. As the world’s largest operational hydroelectric facility, the Itaipu Dam project generates about 14 Gigawatts of electricity. Itaipu provides about 90% of Paraguay’s total electricity supply while about 19-20% of Brasil’s.
So what is the big deal, you might ask? The information above that is widely quoted, at least in the English-language media, only scratches the surface of Brasil’s energy infrastructure issues. Some of the finger pointing that is alluded to in a few articles suggests that the Itaipu Dam shut down because there were transmission problems down the line caused by electrical storms in the area. Whether the problem lies solely with generation or transmission, or is a combination of the two, taking a closer look at Brasil’s electricity sector is pretty fascinating.
According to the Atlas de Energia Elétrica do Brasil’s third edition [PDF], published in 2008 by theAgénica Nacional de Energia Elétrica (ANEEL), Hydroelectric power sources supplied 85.4% of all electricity consumed in 2007. Information from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows how electricity consumption by fuel type has changed in Brasil since the 1970s.As the chart shows, hydro has always been an important source of electricity for Brasil. The next image is a map of Brasil’s electric grid / transmission network circa 2007. I apologize for the low quality. The map, pulled from the aforementioned Atlas actually has a couple errors. The most significant error is in the legend. Dotted, not solid, lines on the map should represent planned network expansions.
In my opinion, as a non-expert, the most telling feature of the map is the existence of a single 750kv (with three separate “circuitos”) High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) trunk line running from the Itaipu Dam to just outside of Sao Paulo. HVDC lines are preferable for transmitting power over long distances as they are economical, offer environmental advantages, allow for asynchronous interconnections, better power flow control and added transmission benefits (stability, power control, etc). It seems like Brasil has put 20% of its eggs in one basket for 25 years and now they are realizing the consequences. In all fairness, there appears to be another HVDC trunk line planned that heads towards Sao Paulo, but I do not know when construction is planned.
The last figure I will share shows investment / expansion in the transmission network as a function of the number of new kilometers added each year. I believe the green (authorized) and orange (licensed) represent a split between public (green) and private (orange) sector investment. Very interesting stuff
I think everybody should be paying more attention to Brasil than they currently are. Brasil is the 5th largest country in the world by area (after Russia, Canada, China, and the US) and the 5th largest by population (after China, India, the US, and Indonesia). The cover of this week’s Economist features Rio de Janiero’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue and a nice little write up on Brasil’s potential.