After a historic blackout that left Argentina and Uruguay in darkness last Sunday, electricity service was normalized in millions of homes. While the reasons are still unknown, here is what we know so far. Energy distribution companies announced that they re-established energy at "100 percent", but this Monday there are continued reports of areas with "thousands of users" that remained without electricity. While there have been many speculations about the cause of the massive power outage, the reasons are still unknown. Here, what is known so far:
How many people were affected?
The blackout began shortly after 7 am local time on Sunday, June 16, the date on which Father's Day was celebrated. Some 44 million people in Argentina and some 3.4 million in Uruguay were left in the dark. In Argentina, the only province that was not affected is Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost province of all. The service was restored in a phased manner in a process that took more than ten hours. This Monday there were still more than 30,000 users without power in the province of Buenos Aires, also affected by a rainstorm that takes several days, as reported by the Regulatory Entity of Electricity (ENRE).
What caused the failure?
The failure that caused the historic blackout is not yet known. Argentine authorities reported that the investigation to determine the cause will take at least 15 days, explained Argentine Energy Secretary Gustavo Lopetegui. Several voices of the Secretariat of Energy indicated to different local media that the cause of the massive blackout was a fault in high voltage lines that destabilized the Yacyretá plant, a binational dam between Argentina and Paraguay. The reason why the system collapsed is unknown.
How is the electrical system?
Argentina and Uruguay share an electric interconnection system centered on the Salto Grande binational dam, located some 279 miles (450 km) north of Buenos Aires and 310 miles (500 km) northwest of Montevideo. In turn, Argentina and Paraguay share the Yacyretá dam. The system is fully automated and, when detecting an overload or a fault, the protection mechanisms that prevent a collapse such as that of Sunday must be activated. It is the first time in history that a blackout of this magnitude occurs. Also in Paraguay, there were momentary cuts.
Power outage affects Macri
The Argentine national government, headed by President Mauricio Macri, was criticized harshly because of the power outage. Why? Since he arrived in the government, in 2015, he has been gradually removing subsidies to public services and authorizing huge increases. To measure the increases, according to the Consumer Price Index of the City of Buenos Aires, cited by the Argentine media Infobae, electricity increases have been 1.317% from December 2015 to October 2018. These increases have generated dissatisfaction, data that is relevant in a presidential election year.
Another action for which the national government was attacked was the delay in giving information about the massive blackout. It took almost eight hours for Secretary Gustavo Lopetegui to react, who gave a press conference to explain what happened at 3 pm.
Is Latin America prepared to face massive blackouts?
Large-scale blackouts occur in many parts of the world, also in countries where it is not expected. In 2003, a massive blackout affected 50 million people in the northeastern United States and Canada. A figure is similar to that of those affected by the blackout in parts of South America this weekend. In September of that same year, 57 million Italians suffered for one day the consequences of a massive blackout. And the worst electrical blackout in recent history occurred in India in 2012 that affected 700 million people. The causes of the massive blackout that left Argentina and Uruguay in darkness for more than twelve hours on Sunday are still unknown, but they raise questions about the state of the energy market in Latin America.
Politicians often point out that these are absolutely isolated cases and that they will never repeat themselves. The Argentine Energy Secretary, Gustavo Lopetegui, is no exception:
"From zero to ten, there is zero chance that it will happen again," he said Monday (06/17) in an interview with Argentine radio station La Red.
The official explanation points out that the failure in the network was caused by a collapse of the Argentine Interconnection System (SADI), in particular in an electricity transport connection in the northeast of the country, near the border, between the hydroelectric power stations of Yacyretá, of Argentine-Paraguayan management, and Salto Grande, Argentine-Uruguayan.
According to the International Energy Agency (AIE), it is expected that by the year 2030, the demand for electric power in Latin America will increase by 70%. This means that during this period, more than 140 gigawatts of new electrical capacity will be needed. How does the continent face this growing demand?
The Latin American energy mix is mainly composed of gas, oil, biomass, and hydroelectricity, with a predominance of fossil energy resources. The electricity sector, on the other hand, is widely covered by hydroelectric power in almost all Latin American countries.
Geothermal energy and renewable energies, such as wind or solar energy, are of minor importance in direct comparison with other sources of energy. Among the importers of energy are Panama, Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay. The exporters of energy and the largest consumers are Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador.
Some countries in Latin America stand out for their especially ambitious goals in the field of renewable energies. Chile intends to generate up to 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by the year 2025. In Costa Rica, more than 90 percent of the electricity supply is already generated from water, wind, and the sun.
The global energy industry is undergoing a profound structural change. The debate on climate change and changes in consumer habits have helped to push a process that affects the entire energy market. The supra-regional cooperation between States is increasingly important. And here is the greatest challenge for the countries of Latin America.
Apart from factors such as administrative obstacles, lack of political stability, or investment, it is cooperation beyond the bilateral level that must be strengthened. In the integration process, much more work must be done to create markets that transcend bilateral ties. That would allow a response perhaps a little more coordinated before the occurrence of events of this type.