A decade of growth has diversified the electricity system away from
hydropower, but policymakers, industrial companies and investors in
the world's seventh-largest economy may find little cause to relax.
Rio de Janeiro-based energy consultancy PSR puts the odds of
rationing at nearly 1 in 4.
"Rationing or not, the drought's impact on Brazil will be large,"
said PSR Director Jose Rosenblatt. "There's no way to avoid it."
Hydro reservoirs, which generate two-thirds of Brazil's power, are
at near-record lows. To keep the lights on and factories open, all
of the country's main thermal power plants are running full throttle
as an estimated 600,000 visitors prepare to arrive for the June
start of the soccer World Cup.
The situation is already testing the government of President Dilma
Rousseff as October's presidential election nears. <ID: nL2N0LC1CV>
The risks of rationing and costs associated with the drought
threaten growth and investment in the country, Standard & Poor's
said on Monday when it downgraded the credit rating on Brazil's
foreign currency debt.
The administration said on March 13 that it will cost 12 billion
reais ($5.2 billion) in 2014 to rescue utilities forced to pay
record-high prices to replace cheap hydro with more-expensive power
from natural gas, coal and oil plants.
That will probably drive up inflation this year and next. At nearly
6 percent, the rate is close to the top of the government's target
band. If the 2001-2002 drought is any guide, Brazil's expected 1.7
percent 2014 growth rate could fall to 1 percent or less, according
to Brazilian bank BTG Pactual SA.
Rationing, the bank says, is the worst option, but higher power
prices for a steel mill or mine would cut corporate profit almost as
surely as assembly lines or shops shut by rationing.
For Rousseff, even more is at stake. Without rain, her re-election
chances may narrow despite a strong early lead in polls.
"The credibility of the government rests on Rousseff's handling of
the drought," said Guilherme Schmidt, an energy industry lawyer and
partner at L.O. Baptista in Rio de Janeiro "For Rousseff, this is
The government blames the problem on "Sao Pedro", which is
Portuguese for St. Peter, the heavenly agent Brazilians associate
with rain. But many analysts say the problem has as much to do with
government policy as it does with precipitation.
"Rain is a factor, but not the only one," said Joao Carlos Mello,
president of Sao Paulo energy consultancy Thymos Energia. "It's also
failed policies and poor management."
THE ENERGY PRESIDENT
Since the 2001-2002 crisis, energy policy has been a major issue for
the government, and no major Brazilian politician is more linked to
the issue than Rousseff.
The last crisis forced the government to order consumers to cut
electricity use by 20 percent or face blackouts. Anger at rationing
helped Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, win the
first of two terms as president.
As Lula's energy minister and then his chief of staff, Rousseff was
determined to avoid another rationing crisis. Images of new power
lines and massive hydroelectric plants figure prominently in her
campaign to win a second four-year term in October.
In September 2012, she added another goal: to cut residential
electricity costs by 20 percent. Hydro-dam operators were allowed to
renew expiring leases on key assets early, but only if they slashed
prices. The move, popular politically, caused electricity shares to
plunge. Many now worry that state-run Eletrobras <ELET6.SA> and
other utilities will not have the cash to finance investments needed
to meet rising demand.
While Rousseff's cuts are still in place, the timing of annual rate
reviews means the higher cost of replacement power will hit utility
bills after the election.
[to top of second column]
Rates could rise up to 20 percent, which would wipe out the popular
2012 cuts that were part of Rousseff's efforts to expand
consumption, especially for poorer Brazilians.
On one level, she has succeeded. The system is more robust than in
2002, when about 80 percent of Brazil's electricity capacity was
hydro. Today, hydro makes up 68 percent, a share that is still one
of the world's highest.
"We have been building new capacity at a rate faster than growth in
demand," said Mauricio Tomalsquim, president of the EPE, the
government's energy planning and research company. "This has been a
bad year for rain, but our simulations for rainfall show that
rationing is highly unlikely."
RATIONING RISK RISING
Without the new gas, coal and oil capacity built since 2002, Brazil
would already be turning off the lights.
In February, reservoirs in Brazil's Southeast and Central West, the
country's top industrial and agricultural regions, were only 35
percent full, compared with a 15-year average of 66 percent for the
month. More than halfway through normally rainy March, water levels
are still at 35 percent.
To ease the shortfall, the Southeast-Central West region, home to 60
percent of Brazil's demand, put an average of 6,260 megawatts of
thermal power onto the grid in February, enough for 9 million
But that may not be enough. Thirty percent of the government's
planned capacity is behind schedule, and some plants sit idle for
lack of transmission lines, PSR says.
Without more rain, Brazil ought to order a 5 percent power cut
between May and October, a period covering the World Cup and
elections, BTG Pactual said in a March 17 report.
"Adjusted for days of hydro demand, the situation of Brazil's
reservoirs is worse than in 2001, when rationing was unavoidable,"
the report said. Steelmakers Gerdau SA <GGBR4.SA> and Usiminas SA
<USIM5.SA> are among the most likely to suffer from higher
electricity costs or rationing.
In a worst-case scenario, putting off a 5 percent cut soon could
lead to cuts as much as 20 percent later, the report said.
But even without rationing, the cost of replacement power would
probably exceed the combined cash flow of the country's distribution
utilities, said Paulo Pedro, executive president of Abrade, Brazil's
large power users association. Consumers and taxpayers would help
pay the bill.
The government, though, shows little concern. The energy minister
rates the rationing risk at "zero." Even government critics say
Brazil has a good, if falling, chance to avoid cuts. In January, PSR
put the risk of a cut of 4 percent or more at 17.5 percent. In
February that rose to 23.8 percent.
"What should be a technical problem is now an economic and political
problem," said Sylvie D'Apote, partner and director of Prysma, a Rio
de Janeiro energy research group. "Rousseff will do everything to
put off the impact until after elections."
($1 = 2.3249 Brazilian reais)
(Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Lisa Shumaker)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.