Lights out in Venezuela as nearly 70 percent lose power

A lack of investment and training in the electric grid has contributed to more than 500 blackouts registered in Venezuela as of June this year.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
A fan looks at his laptop as he waits for play to resume at a FIBA World Cup qualifying basketball game, during a power outage, in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. A power outage hit nearly half of Venezuela, including much of Caracas, which normally escapes blackouts.

A power transmission line failure left nearly 70 percent of Venezuela in the dark yesterday, bringing its capital, Caracas, to a halt as commuters scrambled to get home.

The blackout affected 18 states, crippling public services and shutting down Caracas's subway system. Local reports this morning said parts of Caracas and many interior regions of the country are still without power.

While Venezuela has been plagued by chronic power outages for years, President Nicolás Maduro said sabotage was at the root of yesterday's blackout. In a national address he insisted the "extreme right wing" was seeking a "destabilization that leads to madness."

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles countered on Twitter, "Today's blackout shows once again the terrible failure of the Government! Already they come up with another story to try to cover up [their] failure."

Yet, despite the finger pointing, experts say Tuesday's power outage further illuminates the growing electricity crisis across the country. "It's extremely serious," says Iñaki Rousse, an energy consultant and former vice-president of Electricidad Caracas. "There are blackouts in the country everyday."

Hundreds of blackouts and counting

No grid is without its faults, says Mr. Rousse, pointing to the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. "However, it's the frequency of the outages that are of concern."

A June study by the University of Zulia registered 534 blackouts in Venezuela so far this year. And while Tuesday's cut marks the third major outage in nine months, it's already being labeled "the worst blackout in recent memory," as cuts here usually occur outside the capital.

"It's unprecedented," Miguel Lara, former director of the office of interconnected systems planning, told El Universal newspaper.

The evidence suggests that transmission limits were – once again – likely exceeded, he said.

Critics of Mr. Marduro say mismanagement by state power provider Corpoelec is to blame for yesterday's outage.

"There are two possible situations," Mr. Lara said. "One, that there's a lot of damaged or unusable equipment making it difficult to recover power. Two, that technicians are not prepared for such an emergency."

According to the Venezuelan Ministry of Electric Energy, the country has an installed electric capacity of some 25,000 Megawatts, but currently only 18,000 Megawatts are available to cover demand. This highlights that a number of power plants are not in use.

Iguanas and birds

Despite recent efforts to develop and modernize Venezuela's electric grid, including a 7.2 billion dollar investment on behalf of the Venezuelan government, blackouts and brownouts have remained commonplace in the countryside  – as have odd causes.

According to local press, in 2010 an iguana was blamed for outages in Anzoátegui state. In 2011, a flock of swallows was the alleged culprit for a blackout in Mérida. And last year, an opossum left parts of Zulia without power.

Rousse insists, however, that "despite claims of iguanas or saboteurs, blackouts are the product of a lack of maintenance, planning, and qualified personnel."

Maduro has announced an official investigation into the cause of yesterday's blackout, but observers say the main concern may be keeping the lights on in the capital. 

"In the past, the government has done everything possible to prevent the blackouts from reaching Caracas," says analyst Robert Bottome, director of the VenEconomy publications group. "Now it seems to be finally catching up with them."

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