Brazil's Badly-Timed Blackout

A storm leaves 60 million in the dark for hours. Is the country ready for the World Cup and the Olympics?

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Some 60 million people in Brazil and Paraguay were plunged into darkness for hours when the world's largest hydroelectric plant failed late on Tuesday night. Brazilian officials blamed heavy rains and strong wind for knocking out three main transmission lines that carry electricity from the Itaipu Dam, located on the Brazil-Paraguay border, to some of South America's largest cities, including the Brazilian cities São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. While the power was restored to most areas shortly after midnight, the incident drew immediate scrutiny.

Many note that Brazil has suffered several high-profile blackouts this decade alone. Coincidentally, the American press was debating the causes of a 2007 Brazilian blackout earlier this week: On Sunday, 60 Minutes implicated a hacker, a claim denied by the affected power company in Wired on Monday. In any case, observers debated whether Tuesday's outage was evidence that Brazil had a long way to go before it was prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

  • Dark Times  Time's Andrew Downie sets a chaotic scene of frightened Brazilians "keeping their distance from the sinister, unlit streets" to avoid the possibility of crime, also a big social ill for Brazil right now. "The government has a lot of explaining to do," he says. "And a lot more work needs to be done."
  • The Glare of the Limelight  At Foreign Policy, Joshua Keating says that while media coverage of the blackout is unfortunate, Brazil is not alone in having its social problems scrutinized on an international stage: "The problem with developing countries hosting events like the Olympics is that while the intention is to highlight the enormous progress they've made, they're just as likely to highlight the shortcomings. Every crime wave or infrastructure failure, or corruption scandal Rio suffers in the next six years will now be covered in the context of whether the city is ready for the games. Just ask South Africa or Russia"
  • 'Highlights Investment Needs' According to analysis from Reuters' Brian Ellsworth, Brazil should be credited for advances made in the energy sector since a catastrophic energy crisis forced the country into power-rationing in 2001. However he reminds readers that blackouts are inevitable in South America's largest country, where the sheer size of the territory poses a tremendous challenge for energy transmission. Still, his discussions with government officials lead him to conclude that the future for the economic darling looks bright: "Lula's government has built new thermoelectric plants that help prevent blackouts at times of low rain, while increasing connections within the national grid that allow greater flexibility to move electricity to places that need it."
  • The Silver Lining  Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, Andrew Downie reviews the structure of the country's power-grid. He notes that is primarily based on hydro-electric power, which is environmentally friendly. However, he says Brazil needs to invest in energy-diversification, switching some of the power load to sugar-cane processing and oil-fuel stations. Something needs to be done to handle the influx of tourists coming for the 2014 World Cup. "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."
  • America's Not Much Better  Rio de Janeiro resident Chris McGowan recounts his firsthand experiences in Tuesday's blackout for the Huffington Post. While he grants that it must have been awful for emergency respondents, he thinks the media circus is overblown: "In some news reports, energy experts suggested that the blackout is evidence of vulnerability in Brazil's energy system. I don't know about that. The country may need to upgrade its electrical grid, as does the U.S., but in Rio the power seems fairly reliable. This was the first major electrical outage that I have experienced in nearly four years of living here full-time, and I saw far more brief blackouts on average while residing in Southern California.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.