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Massive Blackout Effects S. America    06/17 06:25

   BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- As lights turned back on across Argentina, 
Uruguay and Paraguay after a massive blackout that hit tens of millions people, 
authorities were still largely in the dark about what caused the collapse of 
the interconnected grid and were tallying the damage from the unforeseen 
disaster.

   Argentine President Mauricio Macri promised a thorough investigation into 
what he called an "unprecedented" outage, one that raised questions about flaws 
in South America's grid, which connects many of the region's largest countries.

   Energy officials said the results of the investigation would be available in 
10 to 15 days, and they could not immediately provide details on the economic 
impact of the outage, which came on a Sunday, and a day before a national 
holiday in Argentina.

   Argentine Energy Secretary Gustavo Lopetegui said the blackout began with a 
failure in the country's "interconnection system," adding that it happens in 
other countries as well. But he said a chain of events took place later, 
causing a total disruption.

   "This is an extraordinary event that should have never happened," he told a 
news conference. "It's very serious. We can't leave the whole country all of a 
sudden without electricity." He did not discount the possibility of a 
cyberattack, but said it was unlikely.

   The collapse began at about 7 a.m. Sunday, with Argentina's population of 44 
million and residents of neighboring Uruguay and some areas of Paraguay waking 
up to Father's Day in the dark.

   Public transportation halted in Buenos Aires, while phone and internet 
communications were disrupted, water supplies were cut off and shops were 
forced to close. Patients dependent on home medical equipment were urged to go 
to hospitals with generators.

   Power was fully restored by Sunday night. But the outage ignited questions 
about Argentina's preparedness and lack of investment in the power system at a 
time when the country is going through a deep economic crisis with soaring 
inflation, a tumbling of the local currency and a spike in utility bills fueled 
by austerity measures ordered by Macri.

   The conservative leader has seen his popularity ratings plunge during a 
crisis where he has struggled to tame one of the world's highest inflation 
rates and poverty has reached about a third of the population. Argentines are 
also frustrated with high utility costs and the blackout could trigger more 
protests against Macri's government just as he seeks re-election in October.

   "The country is already in a weird moment and then you wake up and can't see 
anything," said Julieta Dodda, 27, a saleswoman at a clothing store in downtown 
Buenos Aires. "Many people were going to meet for lunch to celebrate the day. I 
saw many online who joked: "Happy Father's Day from Edesur and Edenor, which 
are our electricity companies."

   Energy officials defended the strength of the Argentine system, saying it's 
"robust" and exceeding in supplies. But the grid has been known for being in a 
state of disrepair, with substations and cables that were insufficiently 
upgraded as power rates remained largely frozen for years.

   An Argentine independent energy expert said that systemic operational and 
design errors played a role in the power grid's collapse.

   "A localized failure like the one that occurred should be isolated by the 
same system," said Ral Bertero, president of the Center for the Study of Energy 
Regulatory Activity in Argentina. "The problem is known and technology and 
studies (exist) to avoid it."

   The blackout raised questions about flaws in the region's grid. Although 
Brazil was spared this time, a similar outage in the region's largest country 
left more than 60 million in the dark in 2009, just as authorities scrambled to 
boost confidence in its infrastructure before soccer's 2014 World Cup and the 
2016 Olympics.

   The power failure on Sunday comes three months after crisis-torn Venezuela 
suffered its worst power outage with the lack of electricity endangering 
hospital patients.

   Other parts of the world have also been hit by major outages. Bertero said 
that about 50 million people were affected by a blackout in the U.S. and some 
provinces in Canada in 2003, and about as many were hit by another in Italy 
that same year.

   Argentina has had a history of blackouts, but none like Sunday's failure, in 
which the power outage was more geographically widespread. Only the southern 
archipelago of Tierra del Fuego was unaffected because it is not connected to 
the main power grid.

   "It's something that had never happened," said Alejandra Martnez, a 
spokesperson for the Argentine electricity company Edesur. The failure 
originated at an electricity transmission point between the power stations at 
the country's Yacyret dam and Salto Grande in the country's northeast.

   Uruguay's energy company UTE said the failure in the Argentine system also 
cut power to all of Uruguay for hours and blamed the collapse on a "flaw in the 
Argentine network."

   In Paraguay, power in rural communities in the south, near the border with 
Argentina and Uruguay, was also cut. The country's National Energy 
Administration said service was restored by afternoon by redirecting energy 
from the Itaipu hydroelectric plant the country shares with neighboring Brazil.

   Many residents of Argentina and Uruguay took to social media to post 
pictures of their cities in the dark. Others blamed the electricity companies 
or the government or simply lamented that their plans had been disrupted.

   Several Argentine provinces had elections for governor on Sunday, which 
proceeded with voters using their phone screens and built-in flashlights to 
illuminate their ballots.

   "I don't remember anything like this in Uruguay," said Valentina Gimnez, a 
resident of the capital, Montevideo. "What is really striking about this is 
that no one understands well what really happened."


(KA)

 
 
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