Brazil hydropower crisis: Drought was 'not unexpected'

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Patrícia Madeira, meteorology director of Brazilian forecasting company Climatempo, spoke to BNamericas about the 2014-15 water supply crisis that devastated hydropower dams and whether it was a result of a lack of planning or an unexpected change in climate.

BNamericas: What are the meteorology services that Climatempo offers the Brazilian electricity market?

Madeira: In the energy business, our services are focused on the electric power trade. Climatempo offers weekly and monthly data and rainfall and affluent natural energy [which is used to calculate the volume of electricity that is obtained when the natural flow of a river is driven to power plants] forecasts for traders. For power transmission and distribution, we offer monitoring and extreme weather alert services. In addition to that, there is river level and flow forecasts for power generation companies. However, energy traders are still our main market in this sector.

BNamericas: How do you assess the water crisis that struck Brazil in 2014 and which has left reservoirs of many hydropower plants at an unusable level?

Madeira: There are some possible reasons for the water crisis of 2014 and 2015. First of all, it is important to remember that, in 2012, the southern region of Brazil was experiencing a strong water deficiency, and Brazil's grid operator [ONS] decided to export electric power from the southeast region to the south. This is not an usual procedure; Brazil's main reservoirs are in the southeast states. Only at the end of that year were the thermal power plants turned on to help conserve the water levels of the southeast reservoirs.

Brazil has always been very sure that, during the summer, mainly from November to March, the southeast reservoirs fill up again. In 2012, the country did not have a water crisis, so the authorities thought they could continue exporting electricity from that region because things were supposed to return to normal in the rainy season. However, what happened was that it did not rain when it was supposed to in 2013, and, in the following years, it rained very little. As a result, even the most expensive thermal power plants in the country were activated in 2014 and 2015.

BNamericas: Some of these thermal power plants were taken offline last year. Do you believe Brazil is heading into a more stable period for hydropower plants?

Madeira: This measure was possible because it rained more in Brazil in 2016 during the wet period, but it was still not enough to shut down all of those plants, for example. Brazil has not been able to meet electricity demand exclusively with hydropower for some time now. In the northeast region, it will be virtually impossible to shut down the thermal power plants for at least the next 12 months. There is no possibility of very heavy rain to fully recover the reservoirs of that region anytime soon.

BNamericas: Looking at it now, was this water crisis a result of a lack of planning or an unexpected change in climate?

Madeira: It was not unexpected. There was already a forecast indicating that Brazil could suffer from a major water deficiency, but the last time this had happened was in the 1950s. In fact, the phenomenon was very intense, but we cannot say that it was not possible to predict; maybe it was underestimated. Because Brazil's energy matrix is based on water, the country has suffered serious consequences. In the meteorology field, it is difficult to be 100% sure. The activity consists of observing natural cycles. So, in this case, it was possible to notice that this cycle was about to occur. Now that it's over, the country needs to use that as a lesson.