Blackout in São Paulo after storm angers residents and launches investigations against energy company

By November 8, 2023

São Paulo, Brasil – Translator Juliana Cunha lives in Embu das Artes, in the metropolitan area of São Paulo, and has been without electricity for more than 110 hours. A strong storm, with winds of 100 km/h, hit São Paulo last Friday, leaving thousands of people without electricity, including Cunha’s home.

She has no phone or internet signal. All the security equipment in her home, such as cameras and alarms, has also stopped working and she fears criminal actions. Many neighbors have already left the neighborhood, which has left the area even more abandoned. Cunha said there is no official information on when the light will be restored.

“After days of misleading me and my neighbors with successive false predictions, the attendants from the electricity company (called Enel) started to just say that we are ‘marked as urgent, but with no forecast of service’”, she told Brazil Reports.

Lawyer Daniela Assaf da Fonseca, who lives in the south of São Paulo, faced a similar situation and was without electricity for four days. On Monday, when an electricity company truck passed through the neighborhood, Fonseca and her neighbors gathered together to avoid employees from leaving the area without restoring service.

The pressure from residents, according to Fonseca, was essential for the company to remove the tree branches that had reached the electrical wiring. Near her house, there was another protest by residents who had been without electricity for four days. They set tires on fire and blocked traffic on one of the main avenues in the south of São Paulo.

Residents of São Paulo prevented Enel employees from leaving until the electricity was restored. Image courtesy of Daniela Fonseca

Cunha and Fonseca are among more than 2.5 million residents of São Paulo and its metropolitan area who were left without electricity after the storm. In most places, the light was only restored between Monday and Tuesday. This Wednesday, five days after the storm, there were still around 11,000 homes without electricity.

In São Paulo, the electricity service was privatized in 2018. At the time, the government sold the former public company, Eletropaulo, to an Italian company, Enel, which is currently responsible for the service.

Since 2019, Enel has reduced the number of employees by 35%, from 23,800 to 15,300, while doubling its profit in São Paulo, which went from R$777 million (USD $155 million) to R$1,4 billion (USD $280 million). The company defended itself by saying that the cuts occurred mainly in administrative sectors, not in operational teams.

In addition to São Paulo, Enel also provides energy services in other states, such as Rio de Janeiro and Ceará. Around 67 million Brazilians are served by the Italian company.

What will happen now?

Enel’s delay in restoring electricity to more than 1 million people led to a lot of criticisms and investigative procedures. The Ministry of Justice, through the National Consumer Secretariat, notified the company to provide explanations, expand service channels and compensate the most harmed consumers.

Aneel, the federal government’s regulatory agency, is also investigating the case. Procon, a consumer protection agency, opened an administrative proceeding to analyze Enel’s conduct, which could result in a fine at the end of the investigation.

More than a thousand trees fell during Friday’s storm. Image courtesy of Prefeitura de São Paulo

The Public Prosecutor’s Office has already asked for a fine for the company. An agreement of R$2.1 million (USD $420,000) was offered to Enel to avoid more legal proceedings. Enel has 15 days to answer the proposal.

“The company cannot say it was caught by surprise. These extreme events, such as storms, will happen more and more in the city”, said prosecutor Denilson de Souza Freitas at a press conference.

The São Paulo City Council approved the creation of a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to investigate Enel. In this type of procedure, councilors have the power to call people to give testimony and request documents from different authorities.

The mayor of São Paulo Ricardo Nunes and governor Tarcísio de Freitas did not comment on the blackout over the weekend. They only met on Monday, when they began to publicly demand Enel. Nunes even said that the contract with the company was “poorly done”.

“We could not imagine that a situation like this would be solved in a few hours or a day. But three, four days is too much. There is a lack of team and equipment to deal with the situation,” said Nunes, who added that the city will take legal actions against the company. 

Mayor of São Paulo Ricardo Nunes in a press conference with governor Tarcísio de Freitas. Image courtesy of Governo de São Paulo

Enel defends itself

Attacked from all sides, Enel has been defending itself since Friday. At the beginning of the crisis, the company’s president in Brazil, Nicola Contugno, said that it was hard to restore electricity due to the fall of more than a thousand trees during the storm, which interfered in the electricity grid.

“There was no negligence. We’re not supposed to apologize. It was something exceptional, the wind was absurd. When a hurricane hits Texas, the problem isn’t the electric company, it’s the hurricane. In Brazil, we are used to smaller events,” he told Folha de S.Paulo.

“But, if we look at it rationally and not emotionally, we are doing an incredible work for a phenomenon that we had no control over,” he added. But, on Wednesday, Enel’s director Max Xavier Lins changed the speech and apologized to the population.

He said he is “feeling the pain of people without energy” and offered solidarity with those who suffered losses due to the blackout: “We are working and we apologize for this.” The company intended to restore 100% of service by Tuesday, which did not happen. The new deadline is this Wednesday.

A gym without electricity in São Paulo. Image courtesy of Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil