April 2, 2016 / 12:07 AM / in a year

Venezuela to cut energy output if key dam falls to critical low

Miguel Angel Romero, head of generation at state-run energy firm Corpoelec speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas April 1, 2016.Carlos Garcia Rawlins

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela will reduce power generation if the key Guri dam, which supplies around half of the blackout-hit country's electricity, falls below a minimum level that is fast approaching, an official said on Friday.

A severe drought, coupled with what critics say is a lack of investment and maintenance in energy infrastructure, has hit the South American nation which depends on hydropower for 60 percent of its electricity generation.

The massive Guri dam in Venezuela's central jungle is now at just 244 meters - its lowest level ever and just 4 meters from a critical point where water cannot feed its turbines.

"Without a doubt if the level reaches 240 meters we will have to apply certain operative measures, which authorities will announce in due time," Miguel Angel Romero, the head of generation at state-run energy firm Corpoelec, told Reuters in an interview.

Romero did not provide specifics but said potential measures would include rotating electricity rationing to minimize the impact on the population, hospitals and food makers while the El Niño-induced drought lasts.

Frequent blackouts, especially outside the capital Caracas, are already driving voter ire against President Nicolas Maduro and further complicating business in the crisis-hit OPEC country.

Venezuela's opposition says the leftist government is using the drought as an excuse for decades of corruption and mismanagement in the energy sector.

Romero, an engineer who said he spent the night in a monitoring room analyzing Guri's levels, said a nationwide blackout was not in the cards and called on Venezuelans to see rationing as crucial to avoiding "more complex" situations.

Current generation levels still cover Venezuela's energy requirements, which hover between 15,000-16,000 megawatts at peak demand, he said.

But despite multibillion-dollar investment in thermoelectric plants under the late President Hugo Chavez as of 2010, the units are operating at only 50 to 60 percent of their capacity to produce roughly 6,500 megawatts, according to Romero.

Romero said the government is working on increasing thermo generation to more than 7,000 megawatts in the coming weeks as lack of rain persists.

The El Niño weather phenomenon has led to drought in several Andean countries. Neighboring Colombia is mulling energy rationing amid the drought, its president said this week.

Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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