Ecuador’s Power Crisis: The Impact of Drought on the Country’s Electricity Supply

Hannah Singleton

Ecuador is in trouble: Drought has shrunk its reservoirs, and its hydroelectric dams have had to power down. The government has been forced to cut electricity to homes for hours at a stretch, and in mid-April, President Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency. Since then, homeowners have been taking cold showers and struggling without internet access, while restaurants have been serving up meals by candlelight to avoid closing and losing perishable food. For businesses, that’s the worst, says Etiel Solorzano, a Quito-based tour guide for Intrepid Travel. “Three hours of no power? You can go bankrupt for that.”

Some days, the power outages have lasted up to eight hours or more, says Juan Sebastián Proaño Aviles, a sustainability coordinator and mechanical engineering professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Things have improved a little—power cuts are now no longer a daily occurrence—but Proaño Aviles expects sporadic energy shortages to continue for years. “It’s going to be a problem,” he says. “We have to do something pretty fast.”

In regions that receive most of their precipitation in a short period each year—like Ecuador, Southeast Asia, and the American West—reservoirs have historically been effective at storing water. (In Ecuador and Southeast Asia, a rainy season contrasts a dry season, while the American West gets heavy snow during fall and winter.) Managing agencies can then gradually release the stored water throughout the year to generate power as needed. This dependability helped make hydropower the largest renewable electricity source in the world.

However, climate change is increasing the annual variability of precipitation, leading to more extreme highs and lows that render hydropower much less reliable. “Phenomena that are impacting hydropower generation, they are playing out all around the world,” says David Michel, a senior fellow in the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research nonprofit. A 2023 study in Nature found that the amount of water in reservoirs around the world is declining by about 1 percent a year on average. Last year, Western US hydropower production fell to a 22-year low, and in 2022, China’s Sichuan province experienced a record-breaking drought that resulted in rationed power, specifically at factories.

At the same time that hydropower is falling, rising temperatures and population growth are driving up energy demands, further straining the systems. Ecuador’s situation indicates what could happen in other regions that are heavily reliant on hydropower—like China, Brazil, and parts of the US, like Washington state—if drought conditions don’t improve.

That said, Ecuador is particularly vulnerable; it relies on hydroelectricity for nearly 80 percent of its power. (China, in comparison, gets only 18 percent of its power from hydro plants; the US, 6 percent. Energy shortages would therefore be much more localized.) Ecuador’s low rainfall has been partly attributed to El Niño, a routine climate pattern that causes prolonged dry spells in the region, but academics have indicated that climate change is the main cause, increasing both the duration and intensity of droughts and leaving the country drier than it has been in decades. “This area is always wet—either full of fog, a little rain, or really strong rain,” says Solorzano, motioning to the Amazon region that we can see out of the window. “Every single time. But now it’s dry.”

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During times of low water, Ecuador has few options to meet its baseline energy demands, because it doesn’t have any other major energy sources, says Proaño Aviles. Colombia and Peru usually trade energy with Ecuador, but they won’t sell their electricity right now because they too have had to ration water for their dams. And trying to plan ahead for this—at least with much confidence—hasn’t been easy either. Studies have projected that between 2000 and 2071, hydropower generation in Ecuador could see anything from a 55 percent drop to a 39 percent increase, depending on the climate change scenario, says Michel.

Other factors have also reduced the function of Ecuador’s power plants. “There’s also increased erosion or sedimentation in the river that then gets into the turbines and decreases their efficiency,” says Michel, with deforestation and forest fires both culprits. In Ecuador, some of the recent outages have been because of the Coca Codo Sinclair dam needing to have sediment removed from its turbine inputs.

Despite hydropower’s vulnerabilities, more capacity is expected to be installed in parts of the world. In Southeast Asia, countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are increasing their hydro capacity to meet rising energy needs. “Hydropower has this tremendous promise for expanding electricity access to underserved populations, generating revenue for states, and for linking regions together in power-sharing agreements and selling electricity across borders,” says Michel. “But these challenges of climate change—what we’re seeing in Ecuador—are also going to be challenges in Southeast Asia.”

Effective management strategies for handling these climate challenges will be essential, and will vary by region. One promising approach for areas with heavy rainfall, according to Michel, is to increase the use of rainwater harvesting systems, which use catchment areas, like a roof, gutters, and storage tanks, to capture and store heavy rainfall in localized systems. This helps replenish groundwater and supports agricultural and municipal needs, reducing the amount of water extracted from rivers, meaning more can be held for electricity generation.

Additionally, modernizing the grid—admittedly a costly, intensive job—can enhance its ability to handle fluctuations in demand, says Proaño Aviles. New infrastructure can both minimize energy losses and optimize the distribution of electricity, so less energy needs to be produced overall, meaning less water is needed.

It is of paramount importance for countries to diversify their power supply by investing in various renewable sources. This acts as a backup source of power when water levels run low. Consider the case of Ecuador. The government is providing 100 percent income tax exemption on new renewable energy investments, including wind and solar farms. Proaño Aviles emphasizes that the role of private investment can’t be understated, being key in speeding up the funding of renewable energy projects.

Energy and water conservation is a cornerstone, irrespective of the region. Proaño Aviles observes that in Ecuador, small businesses adhere to efficient energy-management standards, standing prepared for future eventualities. In instances, regulations on the use of resources are even mandated by the government. Las Vegas serves as an example. The city’s strict water-conservation methods incorporate incentives to homeowners for replacing grass lawns with desert-friendly landscapes, along with restrictions on watering schedules. Additionally, the city employs a tiered water-pricing system – charging higher rates as water use surges, alongside an advanced water-recycling system that treats and reuses wastewater.

Michel circles back, “The events in Las Vegas make a potent impression. It makes policymakers in other cities and consumers nationwide aware of what’s happening. It indicates that we do have policies and methods that can tackle these challenges.”

The adaption of climate change dictates altering weather patterns and an upsurge in extreme events frequency, making proactive and comprehensive management crucial in avoiding broad energy crises. Whether it is South America, the US, or Asia, the energy future of Ecuador leans on the potential to tackle imminent challenges while strategizing towards long-term resilience. Proaño Aviles concludes, “I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I don’t know if we are going fast enough.”

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