Droughts attributed to the El Niño phenomenon have gripped Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia. Bogotá in April prepared to ration power and instituted mandatory reductions in consumption, warning that households and businesses that use more than the average amount would be charged double. The measures reportedly paid off, and President Juan Manuel Santos lauded the country’s efforts to thwart the threat of blackouts. Still, the Ministry of Energy warned that almost 70% of the country’s power is generated by hydropower and is vulnerable to climate change.
Yet in Brazil, which emerged from a crippling two-year-long drought only this February, the El Niño phenomenon has been a boon for the world’s second-largest power plant, the 14-GW Itaipu hydroelectric facility (Figure 2). Itaipu Binacional, the entity created to build and operate the plant, reported that at the end of March, the plant had the best trimester in its history (the last of its 20 turbines was installed in 2007, about 23 years after the first two were installed). The plant generated more than 25 million MWh, exceeding a previous record set in 2013. At the end of March, the plant was producing at full load owing to above-average rains in Southern Brazil, and the power generated was more than the total generated by plants in Rio Madeira, Santo Antônio, and Jirau. “It would be enough to serve the entire Southern Region for 3.5 months and the whole Brazil for about 20 days,” Itaipu Binacional gloated.
Still, the entity noted that it takes careful operation to take advantage of this volume of water. During the first three months of the year, the flow through the water inlet into the reservoir averaged 18,000 cubic meters per second—almost double the historical average, it said. “When there is a lot of overflow, the water level below the reservoir rises, decreasing the volume of falling water, and hence the production capacity.”
“It’s a game between higher flow rates and possibly lower waterfalls,” explained Superintendent of Operations Celso Torino, noting that throughout the period of abundance, Itaipu’s operators followed guidelines dubbed “Dancing with the Waters.” It meant that workers had to optimize the production of energy within methodological limitations, according to the hydrological signal and the opportunity for better utilization, he said.
—Sonal Patel, associate editor