CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan officials announced measures aimed at saving electricity on Monday, saying power consumption must be reduced by 10 percent and warning that hefty surcharges will be imposed on consumers who don't reduce usage.
Vice President Elias Jaua said the measures aimed at avoiding "inappropriate and excessive use" of electricity will force individuals as well as businesses to reduce energy consumption or face fines and possible suspension of electricity services.
The plan was announced after the country was hit by three major blackouts in the past three months.
The most recent outages hit western Venezuela on Friday and Saturday, affecting several states and the country'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.
Under the measures announced by Jaua, Venezuela's biggest energy consumers — industrial firms, large businesses and shopping malls — must reduce consumption by 10 percent during a month-long period that will be compared to the same period in 2009, when the South American country began struggling with power outages.
If those consumers fail to reduce their use of electricity, they must pay a surcharge of 10 percent, Jaua said. The surcharge will increase by 5 percent monthly until consumption drops.
Jaua told a news conference that residential customers will be charged an additional fee totaling 75 percent of their monthly bill if they do not reduce their electricity use by at least 10 percent as compared to the same month in 2009. The surcharge applied to individuals increases to 100 percent or more if the monthly consumption exceeds previous usage by 10 percent.
Individuals who reduce energy consumption by 10 to 20 percent will be rewarded with discounts ranging from 10 to 50 percent, he said.
Businesses including hospitals, water distributors, schools, garbage collectors and oil companies are exempt from the measures, Jaua said. Lights on illuminated billboards and streets signs must use energy-saving bulbs and be shut off at midnight, he added.
Opposition politicians contend the government hasn't invested enough in new electrical projects to keep up with growing demand.
Jaua conceded that "production problems" are partly to blame for recent blackouts, but he also suggested that government adversaries of sabotaging the electricity grid and trying to pin the blame on President Hugo Chavez for the repeated outages.
Officials have not presented evidence of sabotage.
Venezuela had to cope with rolling blackouts for months last year, when Chavez's government said cutbacks were forced by a drought that sharply dropped water levels at Guri dam. The facility produces 70 percent of the country's electricity.
Victor Poleo, a professor of petroleum economics at the Central University of Venezuela, said he doubts sabotage and denied that recent outages have been caused by excessive consumption.
Blackouts are affecting several regions due to insufficient thermoelectric energy production, lack of maintenance and corruption within the state-run utility company, said Poleo, who served as energy minister from 1999 through 2000.
"Today, the crisis is bigger than last year," when the government imposed similar measures aimed at reducing consumption, Poleo said in a telephone interview.