It takes Maria Aparecida Oliveira Souza, or Dona Cida, as she is called, up to three hours to get to her housecleaning jobs in São Paulo. But when there are power outages that affect the city’s metro service, her epic commute takes even longer. “And when I get back, if there’s no light, it’s a lot more dangerous,” she said, referring to muggings and other crime plaguing Brazil’s cities.
Souza lives in Itaquaquecetuba, a city on the outskirts of the metropolis, and her water supply depends on an electric pump. “When there’s no power, we can’t get water in the house,” she said. To add insult to injury, the power cuts that halt her water supply occur most frequently when it rains.
But Souza is far from alone in struggling to get reliable electricity. As the World Cup approaches, Brazil is facing serious challenges with its power supply. Over half its energy is hydroelectric, and the worst drought in roughly 40 years has left reservoirs dangerously low. As of May 8, data from the National Operator of Electrical Systems (ONS) indicated that reservoir levels in the southeast and west-central parts of the country were below 40 percent of capacity. Out of four regions, only the north reported greater than 50 percent capacity.
Last year the government offered a heavy subsidy to consumers on their electric bills, but now price hikes are being announced in different states, creating a potential flash point of discontent in a country that has seen numerous protests ahead of the World Cup. In Recife, a major northeastern city, the local energy company recently announced rate hikes of 17 percent for residential consumers and 25 percent for large businesses.
These increases come at a time when Brazil has one of the highest rates of inflation in the G-20, according to the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. On the same day the announcement was made, blackouts struck several neighborhoods in São Paulo and the surrounding area, in some cases leaving residents without power overnight.
For some, the blackouts and price hikes confirm the feeling that the government has misplaced its priorities by focusing on the World Cup instead of doing more to tackle development issues and economic inequality in the gigantic country.
Guilherme Fernandes is a planning consultant and São Paulo resident who shares this view. “When it rains, we have power outages,” he said. “And the traffic lights are not waterproof, so this creates chaos. Obviously the traffic lights need urgent maintenance. They need to be waterproof and to have an energy supply that is independent of the city’s cables, but this is obviously not a priority in a city that is going to host the opening of the World Cup.” He added that the rainy season in São Paulo is over by June, so it’s unlikely soccer fans will experience these problems.
Fernandes said that the problem affects well-heeled and low-income communities alike, describing a dinner he attended in one of the city’s swankier neighborhoods that was interrupted by a power failure.
Power outages cause problems for workplaces too. Vila Madalena is a centrally located middle-class neighborhood in São Paulo. Daniel Pudles da Silva Filho works there as a designer for an animation firm that and roughly 15 other people. “Whenever it rains, a guy comes into the room where I’m working with my colleagues and says, ‘OK, it’s starting to rain. Save your work,’” da Silva Filho said. He said that these interruptions happen regularly and that outages of a few hours can compromise the delivery time for projects.
Asked about its investment in infrastructure and planning, the city of São Paulo responded that all energy-related questions should be answered by Eletropaulo, the local power company. Eletropaulo’s press office responded to queries sent by Al Jazeera saying it was unable to answer questions about its investments at the moment and recommended its website for more information on its operations. Eletropaulo said that rate increase inquiries should be directed to the National Agency for Electrical Energy (ANEEL) and the ONS. ANEEL did not respond to questions sent by email regarding the possibility of rate increases and competition for funds with World Cup preparations.
Not everyone sees the two issues as linked or believes that the government is spending on one issue at the expense of others. A blog post in Folha de São Paulo on May 14 announced that the government’s price subsidies for gas and electricity had cost the country more than the total amount spent on the World Cup stadiums. According to the post, Brazil has spent 10.6 billion reals ($4.8 billion) on subsidies for electricity alone. The total cost of the stadiums to the federal government, states and the Federal District, according to the blog, will be roughly 8 billion reals ($3.6 billion). The same publication published an interview with Brazil’s Chief of Staff Aloízio Mercadante in which he explained that these subsidies aim to keep the country’s inflation under control.
Thaís Virga Passos, an analyst with São Paulo–based economic consulting firm Lafis, said, “We can’t draw a direct relationship between power outages and World Cup spending.” She argued that Brazil has been unlucky, since its main sources of power — hydroelectric dams — have been hit by a drought, which is beyond the government’s control. “So we can’t talk about a lack of investment. The energy sector is one of the ones that receives the largest number of proposals for private investment, for example,” she said.
Though there may be willing investors lined up to get into the Brazilian power industry, one retired electrical system planner says that is part of the problem. Huseyin Miranda Sipahi worked with the Hydroelectric System for the San Francisco River for over 40 years before taking a severance package at the end of last year. Sipahi argued that the involvement of the private sector makes it more difficult for the government to ensure uniform quality of the national grid across the country. “The big frailty today in the electrical system is the national grid system,” he said. He argued that fluctuations in the power supply also make it difficult to keep the grid stable. “The Cup exposes this problem because the government is trying to keep up an appearance that it doesn’t really have,” Sipahi added.
ANEEL did not respond to questions about Sipahi’s assertion that the national grid system is unstable.
One Brazilian outlet reported in April that a February update from ANEEL announced that three host cities (Manaus, Curitiba and Porto Alegre) were at risk of power outages and three other cities (Salvador, Belo Horizonte and Cuiabá) have work to finish in order to meet requirements from FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Asked whether this situation could compromise some of the games, ANEEL stated in an email that the news report was “not consistent with reality” and that “there is no problem with energy. Some auxiliary projects in these stadiums are behind schedule, but they won’t compromise the games. The infrastructure is ready.”
One method the government is employing to ensure that generators will be able to produce an adequate power supply during the World Cup is buying vast quantities of liquid natural gas. But that has led to some fears of power price hikes for consumers. And the official response to those concerns has provided little comfort. ANEEL said it was not able to answer what kind of impact these purchases would have on rates next year because the technical department hadn’t supplied the information.
The power infrastructure undoubtedly still has serious gaps for many of Brazil’s citizens. For some, it fails to provide power at all. One estimate recently calculated that Brazil still has roughly 1 million people who live without electrical power in spite of a 10-year program aimed at connecting the entire country to the grid.