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Friday, December 8, 2023
CARACAS, Mar 21 2023 (IPS) - The installation of solar panels in a remote village in the Andes highlands in late February marked a second incursion by the Venezuelan government into the field of solar energy, previously uncharted territory in this country that for a century was a leading global oil producer.
The governor of the Andean state of Mérida, Jehyson Guzmán, inaugurated the 135 solar panels that will initially serve 17 families in the El Anís village near the town of Lagunillas, 600 kilometers southwest of Caracas, and will later provide electricity to a total of 2,500 people, in neighboring communities as well.
“They’re presenting it as something new, but they probably brought materials from a facility they had in the area around PDVSA (the state-owned oil company), where an industrial-scale project failed and was abandoned,” alternative energy expert Alejandro López-González told IPS.
López-González also pointed out that the government program “Sembrando Luz”, developed by Venezuelan and Cuban engineers, installed close to 2,300 small solar power systems, mainly in rural and indigenous communities, between 2005 and 2012.
Venezuela was then governed by the late Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). During his time in office the country went through a cycle of oil wealth, followed by the collapse of the oil industry and numerous infrastructure and service projects, such as alternative electricity, most of which were abandoned half-complete.
There are also wind farms on the peninsulas of Paraguaná and Guajira, in the northwest – where the trade winds are constant, strong and fast – and adding more than 100 wind turbines could contribute up to 150 Mwh to the local grid in one of the areas hardest-hit by blackouts so far this century.
Wind turbines began to be installed starting in 2006 in Paraguaná and 2011 in La Guajira, and more than 400 million dollars were invested, with the idea of supplying numerous indigenous communities mainly of the Wayúu people.
But the installation of more wind turbines and equipment was delayed, the project fell by the wayside, many materials were stolen to be sold as scrap, and by 2018 the then minister of electric power, Luis Motta, gave it up for lost.
A similar fate befell hundreds of small solar energy projects – in some cases accompanied by wind power – in peasant and indigenous communities, which would have “benefited up to 200,000 people throughout the country but were put out of service due to lack of maintenance and attention,” lamented López-González.
Actually, before “Sembrando luz”, there were specific and especially rural initiatives for solar and wind energy – for example, to dig water wells in the plains of the Orinoco – organized by individuals, universities and some public entities.
The universities’ turn
Now the initiatives are reaching urban areas, among individuals in cities hard-hit by long power cuts, such as the hot city of Maracaibo in the northwest, the country’s oil capital, commercial establishments, health centers, and an exemplary installation in the private Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB), in Caracas.
UCAB “decided to incorporate ecology and sustainability into programs, practices, the management of its 32-hectare campus where there are some 5,000 students in various disciplines, as an experiment and contribution to environmental science in the country,” Joaquín Benítez, director of Environmental Sustainability, told IPS.
Thus, since 2019, the roof of the postgraduate studies building has been transformed into a green roof, with an 800-square-meter garden of low-lying succulent plants that store water.
Several classrooms under that roof, where temperatures at 3:00 p.m. local time reached 31 degrees Celsius for most of the year in 2013, now have an average temperature of 25 degrees, Benítez said.
The garden was followed by the installation of 30 solar panels along the edge of the roof, plus a backup wind generator, to support research and study projects, provide energy to part of the building and feed the watering device for the plants.
Enough energy is generated to serve a house for five people, with three bedrooms on two floors, two bathrooms and a small garden, Benítez said.
Learning from failures
But a panel installation in a home, farm or small business, even if it is only complementary to the national electrical grid or used to power only a few appliances, costs from 4,000 dollars up to five times that amount. This is a huge sum in a country where the majority of the population is living in poverty and the monthly minimum wage is less than six dollars.
However, hundreds of private solar power installations have sprung up, often in combination with diesel-fired plants – and also small wind turbines – in areas of the west and the central and eastern plains, with a handful of companies dedicated to installation and maintenance.
The electricity crisis has been part of an economic depression and social and political crisis that has pushed more than seven million Venezuelans to leave the country in the last decade under President Nicolás Maduro, reducing the population to an estimated 28 million inhabitants.
The northwestern oil and ranching state of Zulia alone, covering 63,000 square kilometers and home to five million people, suffered 37,000 power failures last year, according to the Committee of People Affected by Blackouts.
Outages across the country totaled 233,000 last year and 196,000 in 2021. Four years ago, in March 2019, a blackout left almost all of Venezuela, including much of Caracas, without power for between 72 and 100 continuous hours.
The country is supplied by the Guri hydroelectric complex in the southeast, with an installed capacity of 12,000 Mwh in three dams, and which covers two thirds of the national demand. Another 30 percent comes from thermal plants, and the rest from small distributed generation plants.
In total, the country’s installed capacity, which should have reached 34,000 Mwh according to the investments made over decades, barely reaches 24,000 Mwh, since much of the infrastructure is rundown, as are the distribution networks.
The supply deficit would be even worse were it not for the collapse of the economy, as the country’s GDP plunged by up to 80 percent between 2013 and 2021, and demand, which stood at around 19,000 Mwh in 2013, had dropped to 11,000 Mwh in 2019.
Paying little or nothing
Renewable energy expert Luis Ramírez reminded IPS that electricity in Venezuela, in the hands of the State, is subsidized up to 99 percent.
“Compared to an average cost of 0.20 dollars per kilowatt-hour in other Latin American countries, in Venezuela people pay 0.002 dollars,” said Ramírez, who is also director of the graduate program in quality systems at UCAB.
However, since 2022 the rates for public services, such as water, electricity, cooking gas, gasoline, highway use and garbage collection have begun to rise in different regions of the country.
In addition, “a cultural issue is that Venezuelans are not used to saving energy and many people, between 30 and 40 percent of users, simply do not pay for electricity,” Ramírez explained.
The inhabitants of poor neighborhoods and shantytowns in Caracas and other cities connect themselves to the grid freely, and in small towns in the interior small business establishments often do the same.
This discourages investments in the sector and in particular in renewable energies, which often have higher installation and start-up costs than plants powered by fossil energy.
From law to potential
Publications from the Ministry of Electric Power indicate that an additional 500 Mwh are expected to be installed in the west of the country, mainly from renewable energies, but without specifying a timeframe, amounts to be invested or sources of financing.
In the legislature, controlled by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the drafting of a renewable energy law was proposed since 2021, to stimulate and organize the sector, but the question has not been given priority by parliament or the government.
The experts consulted by IPS agree that the drafts of that law mainly repeat provisions already present in the current Organic Law on Electricity Service, without adding new aspects such as establishing a renewable energy research institute to help develop the industry, Ramírez said.
According to López-González, the fact that the electricity law enacted in 2010 still lacks regulations to specify policies in measures and technical and operational decisions shows the State’s disdain for ensuring compliance and promoting the development of the sector.
He said the new steps such as the small installation in the Andes and the announcements that a new law is being prepared are “an effort to publicize what is nothing more than a residual development, no more than zombies of abandoned projects.”
Venezuela’s solar potential is one of the highest in Latin America, with an average of 5.35 kilowatt hours per square meter per day (5.35 Kwh/m2), close to the highest in Chile (5.75) and Bolivia (5.42), according to studies by the Department of Sciences of the Universitiy de Los Andes, in the southwest of the country.
In the northern coastal region along the Caribbean Sea, the information collected in meteorological stations shows an even greater potential: between 5.8 and 7.3 Kwh/m2.
In the north, where the most populated and industrialized centers of the country are located, the potential of 12,000 Mwh awaits better times, López-González said. “We can have a wind Guri,” he said, making a comparison with the largest of the dams in the southeastern hydroelectric complex.
Venezuela, a leading oil producer for a century, which still has the largest reserves in the world (300 billion barrels, mostly unconventional), also has the potential to belong to the club of countries that are self-sufficient in renewable energy.
But this membership is still just a spot on the distant horizon.
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