Blackout in Italy underlines need for new power plants

After showing strain over the summer, most of the system failed Sunday.

Gelati melted, phones fell silent, and thousands of travelers were stranded across Italy after an unexplained electricity failure plunged almost the entire country into darkness early Sunday.

"Everybody went without breakfast this morning," said Angelo Chiu in the Strega al Corso café in central Rome. "We've lost hours of business. We spent the morning throwing out runny ice cream instead of making coffee."

Around him, shops were thrown back into the past as they opened for business Sunday without lights, taking only cash, and offering clients hand-written receipts.

"I'd like to buy that dress, I think," said a bemused tourist in Roman's clothes shop. "But I can't see it."

While electricity suppliers scrambled to establish the cause of the outage, complaints began to emerge that a failure was inevitable, given Italy's need for more electricity plants. Italy imports 16 percent of its electricity from neighboring France.

Electricity grids across Europe were strained during this summer's heat wave because of increased use of air conditioning, and Italian authorities frequently warned of possible blackouts.

Italy's environment minister, Altero Matteoli, said that approval had already been given for 26 new conventional power plants. "What happened today shows how urgent it is that we make up for lost time," he said.

Some Italians have worried that new plans could damage the environment - a position that has slowed plant construction.

"Now that this has happened, you realize how vulnerable you are," said Sandro Piperino, a shop owner in Rome. "If we had a nuclear power plant like France this would not be happening to us. Once again, Italy is behind everyone else."

Early reports suggested Sunday's failure may have been triggered by a fault in Switzerland. Geneva was also plunged into darkness for several hours.

The outages hit Italy at 3:25 a.m. and spared no region except the island of Sardinia. At 4 p.m. the chief of Italy's Civil Protection service, Guido Bertolaso, said electricity had been restored to more than 60 percent of the country. In 12 remaining provinces where power was still cut off, authorities said supplies would be back to normal by the end of the day.

Italy was hit with partial power cuts in June, when people - suffering in the scorching summer - overloaded the system with air conditioners and other electricity-guzzling appliances. It was the first time in more than 20 years that the national operator of the electrical grid ordered power cuts.

Authorities have repeatedly said that power demand is growing faster than supply and that imported electricity would not make up for insufficient production in the long term.

Last week, nearly 4 million people in eastern Denmark and southern Sweden were without electricity for more than three hours after a rare power outage hit parts of Scandinavia.

Last month, across the Atlantic, a massive blackout hit vast swaths of the northern and eastern United States and parts of Canada on Aug. 14, affecting 50 million people and shutting down more than 100 power plants. That failure is still under investigation.

Italy's blackout affected almost all of its 57 million people.

More than 100 trains ground to a halt and 30,000 passengers were stranded. In Rome, where shops and museums were open for a late-night festival, thousands of people were evacuated from underground stations but were unable to make their way home.

Hospitals used generators to keep crucial equipment running.

Traffic accidents occurred as drivers zoomed toward intersections without traffic lights. Airports turned on generators to light up runways, although many flights were delayed and a few canceled, the ANSA news agency said.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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