In Venezuela, solar-powered cars offer route around fuel lines

Two Venezuelan innovators are advocating for solar-powered vehicles in the face of power outages and long lines at gas stations. Fuel shortages are a result of decreased production in Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry following years of poor maintenance. 

Jose Angel Nunez/Reuters
José Cintron, an electrical technician, sits in a solar-powered car he developed in Maracaibo, Venezuela, on Aug. 30, 2022. The vehicle is built on the frame of an old golf cart and is equipped with a stronger battery.

In Maracaibo, the once wealthy Venezuelan oil city, two innovators are trying to push a new trend: small electric and solar-powered cars that offer an alternative for people fed up with regular fuel shortages and long lines at the gas station.

Venezuela’s oil production and exports have ebbed and flowed this year as frequent power and gas disruptions have affected state-run oil firm PDVSA’s facilities. U.S. sanctions also continue limiting the markets that can receive Venezuelan oil.

José Cintron, an electrical technician, has developed a solar-powered car, while Augusto Pradelli has created a micro electric vehicle (EV) that can also use solar panels. Both cars are built on the frame of old golf carts with more powerful batteries.

“These electric motors don’t make noise, they don’t vibrate, they don’t pollute, they are the future,” said Mr. Pradelli from his workshop in Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia state, in the far northwest of Venezuela.

“The world has to think about how to get out of pollution and global warming.”

The small vehicles can carry four people and travel between 25 and 40 kilometers per hour. The batteries can be recharged with the solar panels in 10 hours or faster through an electric charging point, Mr. Pradelli said.

“The beauty of solar charge is that as long as there is sun the car is always charging,” he said. “The sun is free and that’s what you have to take advantage of.”

The two men, who self-funded their innovations, are hoping to work together to develop a hybrid electric car and eventually attain national production, a big dream in a country that was once one of the world’s top oil producers.

“Solar energy is the future, we have to stop relying on fossil fuels,” Mr. Cintron said. “But it’s not overnight and oil is not going to go away that easily.”

Both, however, said the environmental benefits were only part of the lure for people in the city. More of an attraction was the way solar-powered cars could help with incessant power outages and fuel shortages.

Production has dropped in Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry after years of poor maintenance and a lack of investment. Long queues at gas stations are a regular occurrence.

Maracaibo, with 2 million inhabitants, is the second-largest city in Venezuela, with tropical temperatures of more than 93 degrees F. (34 C) almost all year round. The heat makes walking uncomfortable – another selling point for cheap EVs.

The solar panels also provide a solution to regular power cuts that have hit the region.

At the end of June, production at Venezuela’s second largest oil refinery, the Paraguana Refining Center in the western state of Falcon, ceased after a breakdown and resumed on Aug. 22, beyond the 21 days originally scheduled. The Cardon refinery’s naphtha reformer, with a capacity of 45,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd), produces high-octane components for gasoline and is key to the country’s gasoline supply.

However, shipments of fuel oil, methanol, and petroleum coke boosted Venezuela’s August oil exports to the second highest level this year, a recovery from weak volumes amid outages, according to documents and tanker tracking data.

A total of 32 cargoes departed last month from Venezuelan ports carrying 760,710 bpd of crude and refined products, and some 256,000 tonnes of byproducts, according to Refinitiv Eikon data and PDVSA’s exports schedules.

The August numbers imply an increase of almost 37% from July, and 22% above volumes of the same month of 2021 with most exports bound for China and trans-shipment hubs like Malaysia.

Fuel oil exports reached 320,000 bpd, the highest level this year, while shipments of methanol, sulfur, and petroleum coke rose slightly from the 252,000 tonnes of July, fueled by buoyant demand in Europe, India, and the United States.

In the face of increasing oil exports in August, at a science and technology event in August, Mr. Pradelli said Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro had even indicated support for his electric vehicle at the event, when his vehicle had been on display.

“The president told me: ‘Augusto, I’ll buy it from you,’” said Mr. Pradelli, adding he told the president that he would then need the means to produce it.

“‘It would be necessary to manufacture them, Mr. President, and for that an industry, an assembler, is needed,’” he recalled.

This story was reported by Reuters. Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago in Caracas.

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