Venezuela to Begin Rationing Electricity

Venezuela will soon begin rationing electricity in several regions because of recurring power outages, the country's energy minister said Wednesday.

Ali Rodriguez said he has ordered authorities to start scheduling rolling blackouts in affected regions and informing residents when they will be implemented. He did not provide details or say how many of Venezuela's 24 states would be affected.

The plan was presented three days after Venezuelan officials announced measures aimed at saving electricity. They say power consumption must be reduced by 10 percent and have warned that hefty surcharges will be imposed on consumers who don't reduce usage.

Venezuela has experienced three major blackouts in the past three months.

The most recent outages hit western Venezuela last week, affecting several states along the border with Colombia and Venezuela's second-largest city, Maracaibo. The outages began Friday night with the failure of a transformer in Zulia state, officials said. Other transformers exploded before dawn Saturday, affecting the states of Zulia, Trujillo, Merida, Tachira and Barinas.

The state-run utility company, Corpoelec, is working to replace the damaged transformers.

Opposition politicians contend the government hasn't invested enough in new electrical projects to keep up with growing demand.

Government authorities concede that delays in several initiatives designed to boost electricity output are partly to blame for recent blackouts, but they have also suggested that government adversaries are sabotaging the electricity grid and trying to pin the blame for outages on President Hugo Chavez.

Officials have not presented evidence of sabotage and opposition leaders deny the accusation.

Venezuela currently generates roughly 17,000 megawatts.

Rodriguez said that Corpoelec and Venezuela's state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela are working together to produce additional 4,400 megawatts this year by installing new diesel-powered generators and repairing damaged machines that no longer produce electricity due to lack of maintenance.

The government aims to produce additional 4,700 megawatts with more repairs and additional fuel-powered generators next year, he said.

Authorities also plan to continue distributing energy-saving light bulbs to residential consumers to reduce demand, Rodriguez said, speaking during an evening interview broadcast on state television.

"Demand is increasing and we must respond to this increased demand," he said. "We are absolutely convinced that this policy is going to be successful."

Rodriguez noted that Corpoelec does not turn a profit, meaning investment in power plants and upgrades to the country's electricity grid are subsidized by the government.

Revenue from electricity bill payments are minimal, covering approximately 62 percent of Corpoelec's payroll, he said. The rest of is paid for by the government.