Page last updated at 01:39 GMT, Monday, 8 March 2010

Light bulbs power Venezuela out of electricity crisis

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas


Soldiers get their orders to change lightbulbs

It might sound like the start of a bad joke, but how many Venezuelan soldiers does it take to change a light bulb?

When the country is in the midst of its worst electricity crisis for 50 years, the answer is lots. In fact, an entire army's worth.

On the Fuerte Tiuana military base in Caracas, there is a warehouse full of light bulbs. Hundreds of boxes of Firefly energy-efficient bulbs are sitting in vast stacks, ready to be loaded onto waiting trucks by the troops.

Meanwhile, the other half of the warehouse is a graveyard for used and spent light bulbs.

Huge amounts of filaments and broken glass have been swept into small mountains before being shipped to Venezuela's second city, Maracaibo, for safe disposal because of the mercury content.

Outside the warehouse, a platoon of soldiers is standing to attention for their colonel before being dispatched to hand out the light bulbs in one of the capital's poorest neighbourhoods.

"Today's mission is vital for the health and development of the nation. And it comes directly on orders from the commander-in-chief," barks the colonel.

Greedy consumers

There can be little doubt that the measure to swap over the country's light fittings comes from on high.

It is part of an effort to tackle the fact that Venezuelans are the highest energy consumers per capita in Latin America - by a significant margin.

The recently nationalised state-run electricity company, Corpoelec, says Venezuelans consume more than 1,000 kilowatt hours a year per person than the second biggest users in the region, Chile.

Chavez volunteer in San Augustin
Venezuelans are the highest energy consumers per capita in Latin America

Unloading the low-energy bulbs into their knapsacks, the troops have been joined by volunteers from the local community council - pro-government teams set up under President Hugo Chavez.

These small groups of red-clad Chavez supporters and soldiers in green uniforms, referred to as "civic-military partnerships", are heading into San Augustin, one of the city's roughest parts.

"I've been doing this for a month," says Miriam Parra de Gonzalez, an activist with the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

"People have reacted well on the doorsteps because it saves them money. The incandescent light bulbs wear out more quickly and these ones use less energy, so they last longer," she says.

"Plus we're giving them away for free!"

Changing attitudes

At a scrap yard and car wash tucked away in San Augustin, the manager, a Spanish immigrant called Miguel Alvarez Lopez, ushers us into a small apartment which he is currently renovating.

For many years, we have had the huge oil income and, you know, you kind of get spoilt. You get used to an easy life
Javier Alvarado
Corporelec president and vice-minister for electrical energy

"In the business, I changed around 40 bulbs last week through Mision Sucre [one of the government's social missions] and now another five today in this apartment."

Asked whether it is the money or the energy he is most interested in saving, his answer is emphatic: "It's the money," he says - a response many in San Augustin would likely echo.

But Mr Alvarez is quick to add that "given the crisis situation we're experiencing, it's also necessary to show a little of the consciousness that we should all have in Venezuela".

The president of Corporelec and vice-minister for electrical energy, Javier Alvarado, is confident that the current crisis is helping change public attitudes.

"For many years, we have had the huge oil income and, you know, you kind of get spoilt. You get used to an easy life," he says.

Faced with such apathy and indifference among Venezuelans, he says the government has launched a ferocious public education campaign, to be combined with a carrot-and-stick policy for industrial and major domestic energy consumers.

Fines and rewards were applied last weekend.

But many are critical of the government's response.

"It's ironic that a country blessed as it is with the energy resources that Venezuela has, in both hydrocarbons and fresh water for hydroelectric power, is in the dire straits that we're in right now," says the general manager of the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, Carlos Tejeda.

The basic problem is that electrical capacity has not kept up pace with demand over the past 10 years, he says.

"The fact that we're in these circumstances points to a lack of management, a lack of planning. That's evidently the case."

Switching off one at a time

The business community is concerned that the government's energy-saving initiatives, such as forced blackouts and heavy fines for any company which does not cut its electricity consumption by 20%, will cripple Venezuelan productivity.

Venezuelan troops packing bulbs into knapsacks
The hope is that energy use will go down

"Some companies can reduce by 5%, or maybe 8% tops," says Mr Tejeda. "But to cut by 20%, you can only do that by lowering production itself."

Mr Alvarado concedes lessons need to be learnt from the current crisis.

"The fast increase in demand maybe caught us by surprise," he admits.

"But we are investing extensively in thermo-electrical plants, and after these problems with El Nino, we will come out with a more solid, more robust power system."

In the meantime, every light bulb helps, he says.

"We are 27 million Venezuelans. If all of us switch off one light, that's 27 million light bulbs, and that's what makes the difference. I feel sure that the solution is in the small details like that."

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