Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri promised to investigate an “unprecedented” blackout that knocked out power to almost the entire nation as well as all of neighbouring Uruguay on Sunday.
Most of Uruguay’s 3m population had power back by mid-afternoon on Sunday, but half of Argentina’s 44m population was still without electricity by about 3.30pm, according to officials.
“This is an extraordinary event that should have never happened,” Argentina’s energy secretary Gustavo Lopetegui told local media. “It’s very serious.”
Two high-voltage power lines running south from the Yacyretá hydroelectric dam on Argentina’s border with Paraguay reportedly went down simultaneously. This triggered the collapse of Argentina’s interconnection system at 7.07am, according to the energy secretariat.
Local experts said the crisis was caused by a design flaw that failed to isolate a local problem. The blackout, which coincided with a day of heavy rains across much of the country, marred several regional elections for governors in Argentina. Voters were forced to cast ballots with the help of lights on their mobile phones. It paralysed public transport, brought many businesses to a standstill and put pressure on local hospitals.
The incident exposed the vulnerabilities of Argentina’s electricity infrastructure, which suffered years of under-investment after utility tariffs were frozen in the wake of an economic crisis in 2001-2002.
Smaller-scale blackouts became a regular feature of life, although the situation began to improve gradually after Mr Macri’s government started to raise electricity tariffs three years ago.
Government opponents seized on the incident to attack Mr Macri, who once said that constant blackouts symbolised the failure of the previous government’s energy policy.
“Millions of Argentines, who have had to pay a fortune in tariffs that have benefited the friends of those in power, are still waiting for energy to return to their homes. Only six days ago they boasted of ‘exporting energy’. Give back electricity to Argentines’ houses,” tweeted Alberto Fernández, Mr Macri’s main rival in presidential elections in October.
The episode was compared to a major blackout in Brazil in 2009, when the Itaipú hydroelectric dam on its border with Paraguay left tens of millions of people without electricity.
In Argentina, only the southernmost province of Tierra del Fuego was not affected by the power cut since it is not connected to the main grid. Officials in Brazil and Chile denied reports that their countries had been affected.