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Brazil may be heading towards a power catastrophe

By Kaufmann in Op-Ed
Sun Apr 29, 2001 at 09:27:15 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)

(Disclaimer: I live in Brazil. I figured that this might be of some interest - I've noticed that California has been going through much power-related trouble recently as well, and this sounds suspiciously like something the current US government might try to pull off :)

As a result of many decades' worth of severe misplanning, Brazil is currently suffering from a huge power crisis. Our genius government's solution? At the beginning of each month, you get a letter telling you how much power you're allowed to use each month, and you get fined, outrageously, for the excess.

Yes, "you" means every household. Yes, "outrageously" means up to fifteen times the actual excess value. Yes, "how much" means if you use more power than the average hobo, you're screwed.

One catch: they want to reduce nationwide energy requirements by 20% with this plan; except they already know the best they can do is 4 to 5 percent; but they're going through with it anyway. (Think the people who approved this idea pay their electric bills?) They say if the "plan" doesn't work in 45 days, there'll be obligatory energy cuts. Very smart - we can't get more energy, so we'll send your sorry ass back to the Dark Ages (quite literally). Urgh.

Another catch: in order to get more money to pay their substantially larger bills, people will have to work more; this means economic growth, which means (you guessed it!) higher power consumption nationwide.

Or: people will try to get more work, but businesses, also suffering from higher bills, won't be able to afford expanding their workforce, so everyone will be unable to pay their electric bills. Most of the country will have their power supply cut off until they pay their bills, which means businesses too; this leads to a huge recession unlike anything we've seen before, and, although now the electric company would have a nice energy surplus, it will go bankrupt. Brazil shuts down entirely. Ouch.

Anyway, there's a summary of the so-called "plan" at O Globo (in Portuguese; use your favourite Portuguese-to-X translation tool, such as Babelfish, if necessary) amongst others (estado, jt, jb). I've been trying to escape Brazil for a while now, but it has never seemed so utterly urgent as now. Unfortunately, our currency is very devalued, so if I tried to liquidate my assets now and buy dollars now, I'd get screwed. I guess I'll get screwed either way.


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Brazil may be heading towards a power catastrophe | 29 comments (22 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
Brazil news... (2.50 / 4) (#7)
by daystar on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 03:07:56 PM EST

I don't have much of an opinion on brazil's power problems. I don't know wht we aren't all using nuclear power now. Apparently superstition is more powerful than economics.

But in the paper this morning (got no link, sorry) there was an article about brazil giving free cosmetic surgury to it's populace. Is this true? How can anyone reconcile an inability to produce enough electricity with having enough cash on hand to give boob-jobs to all? Very odd.

There is no God, and I am his prophet.

Nuclear (2.50 / 6) (#9)
by Philipp on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 04:45:59 PM EST

I don't know wht we aren't all using nuclear power now. Apparently superstition is more powerful than economics.

Maybe you should ask this the people around Chernobyl.

Nuclear's other problems: Not cheap, nobody has a clue what to do this the nuclear waste, creates materials for nuclear weapons, what if earth-quake / terrorist attack / ...

alias kn 'killall -9 netscape-communicator'
[ Parent ]

Oh come on (4.66 / 3) (#15)
by Miniluv on Sun Apr 29, 2001 at 12:18:31 AM EST

That's such ridiculous FUD, and it's all been shown to be bull.

Chernobyl is suffering from radioactive dust spread into the atmosphere after a conventional explosion tore the containment chamber open. The explosion was caused by faulty design of the entire plant, and the Soviet government knew so. To the best of my knowledge all plants outside of the former Soviet Union operating on this design have been retired from service.

I haven't got a citation, but I do believe nuclear is the cheapest, long term, of the mass power producing technologies. When you couple it with the low level of pollution produced, compared to coal or oil fired plants, nuclear begins to look damn attractive.

Materials for nuclear reactions are created in a specific subset of reactors, specifically "fast breeder" reactors. These are limited in number in most industrialized nations, as there are other technological reasons not to use them compared with standard fission reactors. However, a system can be designed in which fast breeders produce fissile material for other reactors, and we greatly extend the power generating potential of any given chunk of Uranium.

You might be interested to investigate the number of nuclear reactors in earthquake-prone California, US. There are four, two in Southern and two in Central California. All of them appear to my untrained eye to be near enough the San Andreas fault line that they may be affected by any major quakes. Is there something you know that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn't that would warrant them being closed?

Finally, in regards to nuclear waste. Containment is currently the preferred method of dealing with nuclear waste. The DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management has lots of information regarding how waste is safely stored until the danger period is passed.

It's too much effort to be offensive.
[ Parent ]

Nuclear Greatness? (4.50 / 2) (#19)
by Mad Hughagi on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 12:04:41 AM EST

I haven't got a citation, but I do believe nuclear is the cheapest, long term, of the mass power producing technologies. When you couple it with the low level of pollution produced, compared to coal or oil fired plants, nuclear begins to look damn attractive.

Hmm... while I do agree that nucear does have its selling points, I think the current trend in the world is to do away with this "rushed" technology.

There are many environmental facts that you have glossed over - from the poor standards at Uranium Mining facilities (Elliot Lake in Ontario, Canada, has a radioactive tailings swamp all around it - I'm sure most others weren't taken care of as well either) to climactic change due to water resevoir temperature fluctuations.

As for it's actual financial efficiency, I believe another thread under this parent has a good basis for debunking the cheapness of nuclear. Proper decommissioning is more expensive than they imagined.

I guess the point is - do we want to use any of these technologies (In their present form anyways) anymore? Each aspect of the power industry manages to force it's capitalist cake-eater into the popular media and tries to convince us why they are they best. The trick is to make your form of power:

a) the cheapest

b) the cleanest

Maybe it's their generous use of clean, but I don't think that one should settle for the "least damaging" - one should try to find new ways to safely and sustainably generate electricity.

I appreciate nuclear energy in theory... but in practice things aren't so cut and dried. In physics you approximate everything to perfect spheres and small angles - rarely ever do you concern yourself with "that new crack in the concrete down yonder" or the fact that the "government lets me get 500 times the accepted radiation dose for a civilian because I'm a radiation worker"

I guess all I'm saying is that is easy to get too "religious" with a certain idea, and rarely ever is it the end all. I guess lots of people do hate nuclear, and probably for the wrong reasons, but I think it is a bit rash to indicate that it is the solution.


We don't make the products you like, we make you like the products we make.
[ Parent ]

Definitely (3.00 / 1) (#20)
by Miniluv on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 01:54:12 AM EST

Nuclear fission is not the one true power by any means. Realistically speaking however we cannot sit around and wait for the best possible source of power to come about, but instead must be constantly deciding amongst the currently viable options to pick the best for a given locales needs.

The main thrust of my comment was to debunk the FUD being spread by it's parent comment. I am aware that there are still glaring faults in the process, and they need more work, but abandoning nuclear power entirely is not going to spark the research and developement necessary to solve these problems. Power demands are continually increasing, fossil fuel supplies are continually dwindling, and I think that right now nuclear power offers a good solution in the short term until other technologies mature.

We've learned an awful lot about how to properly build, maintain and decomission these plants, and there's probably quite a bit more than can be done with only modest investments in R&D.

Applied Solipsism worked for me.
[ Parent ]

Nuclear isn't good enough [yet]... (none / 0) (#21)
by Shaggie76 on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 09:50:19 AM EST

Environmental and saftey issues aside, nuclear power probably isn't the answer [yet] for one simple reason:

Conservative estimates suggest that if all of the earth's uranium is used with existing fission reactors, we'll only have enough fuel for 15-20 years.

Fusion reactors have yet to prove themselves, but emerging breeder reactor technology may change this figure.

[ Parent ]

Economics (4.75 / 4) (#10)
by paulT on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 06:30:58 PM EST

Disclaimer: This is based on research I did eight years ago as an undergrad. I encourage anyone with better knowledge to correct anything I buggered up whether from bad memory or bad research.

I did an undergrad paper on the economics of nuclear power and it was quite enlightening. The bottom line I came up with was that the way the United States ran their nuclear power plants resulted in a loss of money. The plants did not pay for themselves. The problem's resulted from maintenance, waste disposal, and decomissioning costs.

Maintenance in a nuclear plant is costly. The systems are not trivial and expensive to maintain. There were further problems in the 1970's when designs jumped from the 200 MW range to over 800 MW in one jump. The engineers thought they had worked everything out but discovered not all of the technology scaled as well they anticipated. This led to more maintenanc costs as they worked out problems.

Waste disposal: what to do with the leftovers. This is a strange one. Public backlash against nuclear power killed the original plan for dealing with the waste in breeder reactors. Public opposition led to the pulling of funding from breeder reactors which left companies who had reactors with a quandry on how to dispose of the waste. It should be noted that building reactors dependent on a theoretical method for waste disposal may not have been a great idea in the first place. The Japanese brought one of the first breeder reactors online recently but I haven't heard how successful it's been.

Decommisioning is a major cost because nuclear plants radiate themselves and have to be shut down after about 30 years. All the parts then have to be treated as nuclear waste. The plus side is that plants in the US were required to set up a fund when a plant was built to cover the expected cost of decommisioning the plant.

The conclusion was that due to the cost of running the plants, the cost of waste disposal, and the cost of decommisioning, the plants were not economical when compared to traditional methods of generating power. In addition, when the toxicity of the waste and the catastrophic potential of an accident at a plant are added the plants were not necessarily cleaner than those traditional methods.

So jokes about economists pouring over the guts of sheep aside, it is not purely superstition that has held nuclear power back.

[ Parent ]
Regulation (3.00 / 2) (#16)
by Sikpup on Sun Apr 29, 2001 at 03:21:17 AM EST

Regulation is the what breaks nuclear power. Yes any technology with this hazardous a downside should be regulated and watched. But the regulation is so paranoid and so severe it interferes with the safe and proper operation of the plant. Not unlike the way Hughes used to operate its defense contracts - you had a timesheet and had to detail in 15 minute intervals how your time was spent. There were regular patrols to make sure that the sheet was being kept current. Kind of made it impossible to do much actual work.

[ Parent ]
Economists have to learn to subtract (Adbusters) (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by Shaggie76 on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 09:59:13 AM EST

I did an undergrad paper on the economics of nuclear power and it was quite enlightening. The bottom line I came up with was that the way the United States ran their nuclear power plants resulted in a loss of money.
In your comparison, did you factor in the environmental and health costs of the power sources being compared?

I don't think you can look at this issue strictly from a "dollars and cents" perspective...

[ Parent ]

Good question (none / 0) (#23)
by paulT on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 12:24:40 PM EST

The short answer is no and the main reason is that while this is something I've looked at in recent years it was something I'd never heard of in the early nineties when I did the paper. Remember this was undergrad work and when it comes right down to it undergrads are not in any position to do more than skim the surface of any issue.

The long answer is that in the context of what I was studying, yes I did. The economic subtraction ideas have to do with measuring a country's economy and address the common practice in economics of assuming resources are infinite. This means that in measuring the economy of a country all that is considered is output and there is no balance sheet that includes the use of non-renewable assets. The idea of subtraction also notes that environmental disasters will actually boost an economy by traditional measures by sheer virtue of the amount money spent cleaning it up.

I was not looking at nuclear power in the context of a nation's economy. I was looking nuclear power as a business. Could a plant make money in the long run? For a business, environmental cleanup does count against them if they have to pay for it. In my paper I assumed they did. Although I did not look at health issues, they would also be a loss to the company running the plant if they ever lost a suit for damaging people's health.

Looking at it now I think I may have been even more damning to the economics of nuclear power by factoring direct health and environmental costs to the bottom line.

On the other hand I think in the future nuclear power will make a comeback. It will have to unless some other form of large scale electricity production can be found. I'm fully in support of alternative energy sources but it is unlikely they will be able to supply all the needed power as the needs of the developing world continue to expand. With luck alternative energy sources and conservation can turn the tide in the short run but in the long run I think we'll be seeing nuclear again. If a nuclear comeback is measured and careful then it may be a good thing. This time, though, the utilities and governments involved are going to have to be far more careful than they were in the first round or they'll be knocked out again.

[ Parent ]
Some more info (3.00 / 3) (#8)
by Philipp on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 04:33:16 PM EST

Brazil is an interesting country in regards to power generation. It may have the the cleanest energy of major industrial countries: 91.2% comes from hydro-electric generation. Caveat: The flooding of large areas of the Amazon rain forest that some of these dams caused may be not so "clean".

There have been attempts of building nuclear reactors. Since this is expensive technology that had to be bought from first world countries, it is not very economical.

Given, that the Brazilian economy grew substantially in the last years, and hydro-electric generation seems to have some natural limits (there are only so many good dam sites) so it is not surprising that they run into problems. I wonder what other sources (besides the obvious conservation, better efficiency) are currently explored.

Side note: I am slightly disturbed by the alarmist tone of the story author. Brazil considers itself "third world", hour-long electric power outages (as far I can tell from the months I spend in Rio de Janeiro), are monthly, if not weekly events. So this is nothing dramatically new. Also, price increases in electricity are nothing unique (businesses in California currently have to pay a multiple of regular rates). It seems to me that the author is just looking for excuses for his desire to leave the country, to escape the problems of Brazil instead of trying to help to overcome them.

alias kn 'killall -9 netscape-communicator'

Why I'm not being alarmist (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by Kaufmann on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 07:45:27 PM EST

I'm just telling the truth. Yes, for a good part of the 90s, in the height of the summer there were periodic outages neighbourhood-wide (at least in cities like Rio). But that was a contingent problem. The problem now is not only structural - meaning it's not occasional and caused by local failures, but a symptom of the inviability of our current power system to provide the electricity that the country demands - but it's not isolated; it indicates the possibility of a much more drastic crisis.

As for the rates, my point was precisely that they will not do anything to solve the problem; that's the catch. The government can try to make people pay how much they want - it's not going to work.

As for me wanting to leave Brazil - why is that wrong or bad? Should I be forced to put up with a country that I dislike, in an untenable situation, when I could be living in a better country - just because someone else thinks such things as patriotism and sense of civic duty are universal ideas?

By the way, isn't this a topical discussion? :P

[ Parent ]

This should have been two separate comments... (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by Crashnbur on Sun Apr 29, 2001 at 01:31:23 PM EST

The first there paragraphs were excellent information. The last was a bold assumption and a shot at the author. I don't know whether you meant it as insult or anything like that, but I wouldn't have said that... :-) I would rate this article a 5 if not for that last bit...


[ Parent ]
Pretty strict (3.50 / 2) (#12)
by KnightStalker on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 08:18:19 PM EST

This may look reasonable, but I'd be in the 15x bracket there, as I used 1399 kWh between 03/07 and 04/06. Electric heat, 450 ft^2 apartment, 1 computer on 24/7. The only way Brazilians could beat this is by using iceboxes for refrigeration, fire for cooking and heating, and washing and drying clothes by hand. I couldn't imagine doing that myself.

I think I probably use less electricity than most Americans. But this would cost me (at Oregon rates) $547 instead of the $81.49 (plus fees) I paid. That's more than my *rent*.

strict but impossible to regulate effectively (4.66 / 3) (#13)
by eLuddite on Sat Apr 28, 2001 at 09:48:14 PM EST

The only way Brazilians could beat this is by

Is by doing what they've been doing all along: splicing and shunting power from the street into their houses. Unmetered energy for anyone with a cardboard box to call home. Unless things have drastically changed in recent years, the roofscapes of Brazilian cities and towns look like bowls of spaghetti.

God hates human rights.
[ Parent ]

Do you turn the monitor off? (3.00 / 1) (#17)
by Crashnbur on Sun Apr 29, 2001 at 01:29:08 PM EST

The monitor uses the most power... turning it off when the computer is not in use might save a few bucks. And, of course, being subject to huge bills like that, I'm sure you're a lot more conscious of all the power-saving stuff than I am, so I won't assume that you're not. :-)


[ Parent ]
Beaten: We have another usage pattern (5.00 / 2) (#24)
by Pac on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 03:12:15 PM EST

We usually do not need electric heaters in Brazil, except (mainly) in the regions to south of the Capricorn Tropic (and even here, it is not needed for most of the winter).

Your joke about fire for cooking and heating and drying clothes by hand (how one does it??) is misinformed. We use fire to cook! In Brazil we use mainly bottled gas to fuel ovens and such, not electricity. And the sun will dry the clothes very quick too.

See, I live (in São Paulo, Brazil) in a 300 m2 (which, btw, I do not know nor care how many feet are. Metric system rules!) house, with my wife and my 10 year old son. We have 3 heavily used computers (one laptop), 2 other less used computers (another laptop and a backup workstation) a printer, electric showers, most home appliances one can have (TVs, fridges, etc), a sometimes 24/7 Nintendo 64 (:)). Last month our electricity usage was almost one third of yours, some 550 kWh.

If, as you say, you use less electricity than most Americans, I think I am beginning to understand the roots of California power problems.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
Electric heat (3.00 / 1) (#28)
by KnightStalker on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 09:35:46 PM EST

I'm sure my inefficient baseboard heaters are my main problem. I've been using them less since I got that bill. And my apartment works out to about 40-45 m^2.

Just out of curiosity, what do you use for heating/cooling? I've known exactly one person from Brazil (he lives in Belo Horizonte) but he never said anything about the infrastructure. Do most Brazilians use natural gas or propane for cooking and heating?

[ Parent ]

Heat (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by Pac on Tue May 01, 2001 at 02:54:33 AM EST

You must understand that in a mainly tropical country, heating is not exactly a national sport (that would be soccer).

While we cook mostly with natural gas (bottled or from pipes - São Paulo, a very large city, has a significant amount of houses served by gas pipes), water heating for showers and baths is mostly electrical.

We usually do not heat houses (central heating in houses and residential buildings is pretty rare). Air conditioning for coolling is more common, specially in the warmer regions, but not as common as it could be because its pretty expensive to buy, install and mantain. Also, a carefull architecture will usually let you do without artificial cooling in houses and even buildings.

Brazil is almost self-suficient in organic fuel, so its far cheaper this way. Our present energy crisis is mainly due to the lack of investment in the previous decade (more or less the same as California, except that the government owned every single piece of the energy infrastructure until recently). We still have uncountable rivers where hydroelectrical plants could be build, but it takes time.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
Naive, alarmist, misguided (5.00 / 1) (#25)
by Pac on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 03:29:31 PM EST

First, after many decades of severe misplanning you were expecting what, the miracle of the multiplication of hydroeletric plants?

Second, your description for the plan is completely innacurate.

There will NOT be a flat 15 times overprice. The value will vary according to the user profile (those who expend more will pay more, up to the 15 times the current price you name).

Also, you energy "ration" will NOT be invented out of thin air. It will be based upon your usage in the same month last year (minus the expenditure reduction required).

I also notice you refrain from presenting to us the wonderful alternative solutions you have for the problem. Besides pretending it does not exist, I mean. I guess you are waiting for your patents on time travel to be approved, so you can go back and correct the planning problems, right?

Sidenote: Another poster stated that he is a brazilian and has not heard of this plan. I suggest he start reading newspapers. The plan is about (meaning this week or the next) to be presented to and probably approved by the National Energy Agency.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

I don't see why you say that (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by Kaufmann on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 05:54:45 PM EST

Naive? Alarmist? Misguided? Aren't you just calling names?

First, of course there was bound to be an energy crisis, and I did point that out; but I don't believe (and neither does the government) that the way out of it is an overconsumption fine.

Next, regarding the plan itself, I didn't state anything which isn't factually correct. First, note that I said "up to 15 times". That is accurate; I did not imply that this was a flat rate.

Second, the ration will be calculated in such a fashion that basically every middle-class or higher household will fall into the 15x bracket, and, as another poster pointed out, there is no amount of cutbacks (short of moving into a brick house with an illegal power supply) that will keep every one but the poorest people of Brazil (and those who happen not to pay their electricity bills) from getting screwed by this plan.

Third, the fact that I don't have a ready-made alternative solution for this problem (note the "time travel" straw man) doesn't mean that I'm not allowed to criticise this one. "You can't do any better, so shut up and let us do our job"? What kind of democracy is that?

[ Parent ]

Still wrong (and some adjective justification) (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by Pac on Mon Apr 30, 2001 at 06:41:30 PM EST

You keep insisting that the proposed plan will not reduce the comsuption in the 20% needed but only in 4 or 5%. The government, on the other hand, is heading for a 10 to 20% reduction. Obviously this plan is not the sole action to be taken. Also, note that 5% is still far, far more than nothing (which is exactly how much energy you seem willing to save).

You get the "Alarmist" for saying "up to 15%" and then assuiming it is 15% for all no matter what. And the "Misguided" for the recent "it be calculated in such way..." and other similar remarks in the main post.

It is pretty clear that the overprice is for the overcomsuption. Any "middle-class or higher" household can learn to keep unused lamps turned off, use the shower quickly and open the refrigerator door only when necessary. This way the said household will avoid the overprice.

A second "misguided" goes exactly for the "middle class or higher" remark. Who do think should pay more? The already very poor? The ones who use 100 kWh/month or less?

I never said you are not allowed to criticise this plan or anything else our government does. Alas, there is no lack of subjects for criticism in Brazilian government.

But you are not even criticising this plan in a fair way. You are not proposing a discussion about alternatives. You do not seem interested in alternatives, if any. You come across as someone in denial: you hate the prospect of being forced to save energy (along with tens of millions of others) and you can't see any alternative.

You see, it is not like they are taking away your electricity because they are mean old politicians conspiring to sell it to Argentina. It is a real danger, an emergency, even a case of national security. You do not hesitate in matters of national security. You do what have to be done and deal with the broken limbs in later date.

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
Brazil may be heading towards a power catastrophe | 29 comments (22 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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