TREND: The battle for Argentina's electric power future

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Argentina's power sector needs help, but the question of how to provide it has led to conflicting visions among those in charge.

The country kicked off 2014 with a series of weeks-long power outages in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, where approximately 40% of the population lives.

Distributors Edenor and Edesur were investigated and fined for the blackouts, but the problem is deeper, according to BNamericas' October Electric Power Intelligence Series Outlook.

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Although the sector is technically open to competition, the report says, government measures like electricity price-freezing have caused investment interest in power infrastructure to dry up.

As a result, more than 60% of government subsidies go to the energy sector, mostly to keep distributors afloat and pay for natural gas imports.

"The blackouts have clearly demonstrated that the system is not able to securely meet demand," former energy minister Jorge Lapeña told BNamericas. "It's not possible to have a healthy energy economy with companies operating at a loss, as do most of the power distributors in Argentina."

In an effort to avoid more outages, state energy company Enarsa has increasingly relied on the GEED on-site generation program, which accounts for some 1.15GW of available capacity to date.

The most recent GEED call was for more than 500MW of mobile generation units in Buenos Aires and Córdoba provinces.

An open letter to the government signed by eight former energy ministers, including Lapeña, argued that on-site generation is an expensive and short-term option that should only be used in emergencies.  

The country's long-term solutions have faced opposition as well. The 1.74GW Néstor Kirchner-Jorge Cepernic hydro project in Santa Cruz province has attracted the scorn of former energy ministers, the local press and environmentalists alike.

An editorial published in daily La Nación argued that the project's cost has more than doubled since the first tender for it was launched in 2007, and that an associated 2,500km transmission line to Buenos Aires "would negate the project's profitability."

An op-ed piece in newspaper Clarín warned that the US$4.7bn project being financed by China would negatively impact the Perito Moreno glacier, an accusation denied by the planning ministry.  

Enarsa launched three tenders for the dam before finally awarding works to a consortium comprising China's Gezhouba and Argentine firms Electroingeniería and Hidrocuyo.

Meanwhile, the 240MW Río Turbio coal-fired plant is scheduled to launch operations next year. In theory, state coal miner YCRT will supply 100% of the feed for the plant from the adjacent Río Turbio underground mine.

But local media have reported that the mine is producing 19,008t/m of coal, about 16% of the 112,320t/m that the 240MW plant will require.

One bright spot, depending on who you ask, is the country's nuclear program. The 745MW Atucha II plant came online in June and is operating at 75% of capacity, according to the latest update from the government.

Planning minister Julio de Vido met with Chinese officials to discuss collaboration on the 800MW Atucha III nuclear plant, which will be Argentina's fourth.

The government has been promoting renewable energy more lately as well, although renewables' contribution to the national mix remains marginal.

Another important question is whether development of the Vaca Muerta shale formation will allow Argentina to cut back on expensive natural gas imports to give the power sector a needed boost.

Thermo plants accounted for 60% of installed capacity at end-July, according to the BNamericas report, followed by hydro at 36%.