A Black Swan Called Guri?

“A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11.”

The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable – By Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dean’s Professor in the Sciences of Uncertainty, University of Massachussetts at Amherst.

At 1:20 a.m. on 17 August 2009, a fire broke out at the Bratsk hydropower plant/dam complex (officially named “50 years of Great October”), which is located at the second level of the Angara River hydroelectric power plants cascade in the east-central Russian province of Irkutsk Oblast.

The Bratsk hydropower plant immediately shut down, and other power generation plants in the Russian power grid were ordered to increase their power generation, including the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydropower plant in southern Siberia several hundred kilometers away from Bratsk.

On 17 August 2009, the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydropower plant was the largest in Russia and the sixth-largest in the world.

However, at approximately 8:13 a.m. that morning, turbine unit No. 2 at the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydropower plant, one of 10 Russian-made 640 MW turbines weighing almost 2,000 tons each, was blown loose from its seating and flew in pieces over 40 meters into the air.

The control rooms and turbine hall flooded immediately. But two other turbine generating units continued to run under water for over a minute, causing massive short circuits and explosions which left the hydropower plant without power, increasing the scale of the catastrophe and killing 76 workers inside the control rooms and turbine hall.

The surging water and electrical explosions caused massive structural damage that will take at least four years to repair at a cost of billions of dollars.

An investigation headed by Rostekhnadzor director Nikolai Kutin concluded that turbine unit No.2 was overstressed and structurally damaged as a result of years of poor maintenance and technical deficiencies.

More detailed information is available here, here, and here.

Photographs and videos of the catastrophic failure can be viewed here, and here.

How does this relate to Venezuela? Why should a catastrophic failure at a Russian hydropower plant in Siberia matter to Venezuelans concerned about the fate of their nation?

It matters because officials at the Guri hydropower plant/dam operated by Corpoelec subsidiary Edelca report that turbine unit No.2 – which is currently shut down for maintenance – vibrates abnormally when in operation.

The Edelca officials also report that the concrete spillway that funnels water into turbine unit No. 2 has suffered structural damage (“perforations”) about 93 meters above the turbine unit, which make it increasingly difficult to control the volume/flow of water running through the power generation turbine.

However, turbine unit No.2 is only one of seven turbine units currently out of service at Guri, which has 20 turbine units with a combined power generation capacity of 10,000 MW. The other turbine units offline at present include Nos. 5, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 16.

Regional newspaper Correo del Caroni reports that turbine unit No.8 is almost ready to be restarted.

But Edelca officials at Guri complain that Corpoelec’s insistence that the repairs be accelerated is creating a dangerously unsafe situation in the turbine hall.

One attempt to restart turbine unit No. 8 earlier in October had to be suspended when the turbine’s rotation speed red-lined.

Turbine unit No. 16 has unspecified operational/technical problems which Edelca officials decline to disclose, even off the record. But a union official at Guri tells Caracas Gringo that turbine unit No. 16 is also, like turbine unit No. 2, a prime candidate for a catastrophic failure.

The other inoperative turbine units – Nos. 5, 6, 10 and 12 – are in the process of being maintained/repaired and soon will be restarted, according to Edelca and Corpoelec managers.

But union officials at Guri warn that these inoperative units also have unspecified problems which technicians are having problems repairing.

Complicating matters further, an explosion and fire on 20 October 2009 at Planta Centro, the thermal power generation plant with a capacity of 2,000 MW near Puerto Cabello, completely destroyed one of the plant’s five 400 MW generation units.

Cadafe officials who manage Planta Centro confirm that three other Planta centro power generation units with a combined capacity of 1,200 MW are unsalvageable. One of these units – No. 5 – is being cannibalized for parts and components in a desperate attempt to restart the other units.

And the only power generation unit still operating at Planta Centro is incapable of generating even 130 MW, which means it is operating about 70% under its rated generation capacity

Investigators with the Interior and Justice Ministry’s political police (Disip) have been sent to Planta Centro to determine if saboteurs caused the explosion and fire. But Cadafe managers and union leaders at Planta Centro say the explosion/fire last week was the result of 10 years of almost zero maintenance.

Venezuela has an installed power generation capacity of 23,000 MW, according to Corpoelec and the Energy Ministry. About 71% of this power generation capacity is hydro, and the rest is thermal (fuel oil mainly, and decreasingly gas).

But Venezuela’s current real operational power generation capacity is between 16,000 MW and 17,000 MW.

The three hydropower generation plants/dams on the Lower Caroni River – Guri, Caruachi and Macagua – currently generate 71% of the country’s power, or roughly 11,000 MW of the 16,000 MW to 17,000 MW of effective operational generation capacity nationally.

Overall, about 7,000 MW of power generation capacity is inoperative, of which about 2,100 MW is hydropower generation capacity and the rest is thermal power generation capacity.

Corpoelec officials confirm that at least 57% of the country’s installed power generation capacity is currently inoperative.

Will there be a catastrophic failure at Guri? Impossible to answer, but we certainly hope not.


If Guri were to suffer a catastrophic failure in its turbine hall, Venezuela would be hurled literally back into the dark ages – perhaps for several years.

Power outages would not be the current average of 6-12 hours per day everywhere in Venezuela except Caracas. Instead, if Guri fails power outages would be national in scale, including Caracas, and easily could last days or even weeks.

Pdvsa’s crude production, refining and export operations would be affected. It’s conceivable that most of the country’s oil production would be shut down, depriving Venezuela of the foreign exchange earnings without which the Chavez regime, and the country, cannot survive.

The petrochemicals sector likely would be forced to shut down, and so would the basic steel/aluminum industries located in Ciudad Guayana. Gasoline shortages would surge nationally because Pdvsa’s refinery operations would decline and service stations would have no power to operate their pumps.

Private manufacturers also would be forced to shut down, and most commercial activities would be sharply reduced.

Agricultural production probably would collapse too.

The financial sector would come to a standstill. ATM’s would not work, and banks would be unable to process any transactions electronically, including credit card and debit card operations, and the “conformacion” of checks.

Ports, airports, and urban transportation would be forced to significantly scale back operations or even shut down. Imagine the vehicle congestion in Caracas and other cities if traffic lights stop working. Imagine the congestion in Caracas if the Metro has to suspend operations.

The “barrios” where up to 80% of the country’s inhabitants live would be hellishly, lethally darker at night. Imagine how violent crime could explode completely out of control.

As economic activity collapses, unemployment would climb into the clouds, shortages of food, gasoline and everything else would quickly escalate, possibly pushing inflation into very high double or even triple digits.

Higher unemployment, more violent crime, hunger, popular rage would escalate.

And, perhaps sooner than President Chavez and his criminal associates suspect, millions of poor Venezuelans might start eyeing light posts as a convenient place to hang chavistas upside down – like the Italian communist partisans who executed fascist leader Benito Mussolini on 28 April 1945 in the small village of Giulino de Mezzegra, and then hung his corpse upside down at an Esso (Exxon’s ancestor) service station.


About Caracas Gringo

Representing less than 0.00000000001515152% of the world population as of 31 December 2011.
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11 Responses to A Black Swan Called Guri?

  1. Pingback: One for the skeptics that the electric crisis is not all Chavez’ Government fault « The Devil’s Excrement

  2. Peggy says:

    Excellent! It’s the ugly truth!….


  3. ElBostonian says:

    It used to be such a beautiful place and now the whole country is slowly turning into a crime ridden living hell. God help those who are still there.


  4. Pingback: Venezuela’s Electricity and Water supply: Not a pretty picture « The Devil’s Excrement

  5. moses says:

    A friend of mine works near Caracas in a plant. Here is the latest schedules of “programmed Maintenance” shutdowns of 2.5 – 5 hours each:

    Date Interval
    30-Sep 19 days
    15-Oct 15 days
    22-Oct 7 days
    27-Oct 5 days

    He just told me that there is a “Programmed Maintenance” for today ….


  6. Roy says:

    For those of us who have been watching the slow degradation of Venezuela under Chavez and its downward slide into authoritarian dictatorship, the “Black Swan” scenario actually gives us a sort of morbid hope. This is the same sort of false hope that is harbored by many Venezuelans that they will eventually be saved from Chavez by a U.S. intervention (a la Panama), or that Chavez will go to war with Colombia and be defeated by them. This is the kind of desperation that leads to calling in fire on your own position, simply in the hope of changing the equation and the status quo.

    However, the harboring of such hopes is dangerous, because it gives Venezuelans the excuse to not to engage in the arduous work of confronting the real social and political problems facing the country. As attractive (easy) as it may sound, such a scenario, even if it succeeded in replacing Chavez, would ultimately result in simply starting the swing of the political pendulum towards the opposite direction without having addressed the root issues that have caused Venezuela to lurch from rule by one set of kleptocrats to the next. On the other hand, if change can forced from within, knowing what it cost in “blood, sweat, and tears”, Venezuelans will be more inclined to forge a more just and stable political system that helps advance the country as a whole and not just whichever set of bastards happens to be at the helm of the ship of state.


  7. RWG says:

    Don’t be so quick to think that a catastrophic countrywide power failure will lead to the demise of Chavez. Chavez has already blamed others for the current electricity shortage and he will blame others including Bush and Obama if a catastrophic collapse of the power system occurs. Chavez is always looking to shift the blame to others and he might succeed.


  8. Bois says:

    I own a small specialized services contracting company. Two years ago we stopped working in PDVSA refineries because of safety and maintenance issues.
    Due to lack of maintenance, these plants are very dangerous to work in, worker injuries, fires, and explosions. Management covers it all up or puts the blame elsewhere.
    It would be like never changing the oil in your car, it will run for an unspecified time, but eventually it is going to fail.
    This is how PDVSA is running their refineries, eventually their is going to be a catastrophic failure, ruining equipment and killing people.
    Hopefully they will reverse their current attitude regarding plan and preventive maintenance.


  9. revbob22 says:

    I knew an engineer that worked on replacing those pump motors, before 79. He did mention backup generators then (I was researching for my own use). Whether they are still there, or capable of functioning is another story.


  10. Hugo Groening says:

    I agree, excellent post. I would only add, that almost all the water that comes into Caracas is pumped massively and continuosly from reservoirs at much lower altitude. The pumps are electrically run. I ignore whether the electric systems that run the pumps, have power generating backups. If electricity fails and there are no power backups, Caracas will be left without water in no time. Now, that’d be a prescription for utmost chaos and violence.

    I remember once in 1979, that lightning struck the water pumping system, damaging several pumps, although not all. It was a hellish nightmare that lasted nearly two weeks.


  11. m_astera says:

    Excellent essay. I recommend everyone take a look at the still photos of the catastrophe at the Russian hydroelectric dam. Very scary.

    Reading the comments about the Russian dam, it appears what caused the blowup and damage was not a faulty turbine, but a low-end water door/gate that failed and closed while the upper was still open. Such a simple thing, a door closing.

    And that, it seems, is all it would take to shut Venezuela down. No electricity, no petrol pumping, no foreign exchange, no imports of food and replacement parts.

    I bought a package of large candles a few days ago. Think I’ll buy a bunch more tomorrow.


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