Brazil blackout tests country's readiness for Olympics and World Cup

A Brazil blackout plunged large parts of the country into darkness last night, adding to Brazil's 'to do' list ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.

Andre Penner/AP
Cars drive through Paulista Ave. in Sao Paulo during a blackout Tuesday.

When Rio de Janeiro won the right to host the 2016 Olympic Games six weeks ago it sent the country into seventh heaven. But a month of setbacks has brought Brazilians back down to earth and provided it with a to-do list for the future.

The latest came last night when a power outage plunged half the country into darkness. The blackout hit cities like São Paulo (pop. more than 20 million) and Rio de Janeiro (pop. almost 10 million) and even stretched to parts of Paraguay.

The exact causes are still unclear, but officials believe the crash was due to a fault in transmission lines coming from Itaipu, the mega-dam on Brazil’s border with Paraguay. Itaipu provides up to 14,000 megawatts of energy to both nations, including large swathes of populous southern Brazil.

The border area was hit by wild storms last night and those could have been crucial factors in causing the outage, according to officials.

The circumstances suggest the problem may be an isolated incident rather than a deep-rooted problem. But why Itaipu was providing so much energy alone when other hydro-electric plants could have been sharing the burden is an issue.

“It is worrying that a storm can knock out 50 percent of the energy to such a big area,” said Rafael Schechtman, director of the Brazilian Center for Infrastructure. “There was no reason to have all that reliance on Itaipu. Other plants could have been sharing the load and the problem would not have arisen.”

Brazil boasts that it gets more than 90 percent of its energy from hydro-electric sources. The country is criss-crossed with rivers and damming them has provided South America’s largest country with a source of energy that is renewable, natural, and clean. It currently has a capacity of around 70,000 megawatts and will add another 20,000 megawatts, most of it hydro-electric, by the time it hosts soccer’s World Cup in 2014, Schechtman said.

It also has oil-fueled power stations and a number that run on gas from its own Amazonian fields or from those in neighbouring Bolivia. Power from sugar cane is another potentially important energy source, especially if money is invested in transmission lines from the hundreds of cane-processing plants.

The investment is just one more on the long list necessary if Brazil is to transform itself into a world-class destination by 2014. Brazil knows it needs to improve its roads, railways, and airports and it has promised to add hotel beds to help cope with the influx of visitors expected for the World Cup and the Olympics.

Add those costs to the bill for cleaning up the thousands of favelas (slums) and providing security for millions of visitors, and the task at hand seems to be growing on an almost weekly basis. Setbacks like last night’s could turn out to be a blessing in disguise – if they prompt authorities into taking stock and taking action. The clock is ticking.

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