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Italy: Power Blackout Latest In Unusual Chain Of Events

The electrical power blackout that plunged Italy into darkness at the weekend is the latest in a series of vast breakdowns which have affected tens of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic. The apparent reason for the Italian chaos was the fall of a single tree across a line in Switzerland. Conspiracy theorists will of course be asking, did the tree fall or was it cut?

Prague, 29 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some 57 million people lost their electrical power in Italy at the weekend when the national grid crashed. Almost everywhere on the mainland there were scenes of chaos.

Rail passengers were stranded deep in the countryside, traffic lights were out at all intersections, and hospitals and clinics had to rely on emergency generators.

The trouble started in the early hours on 28 September on Italy's northern border, with the failure in quick succession of power lines from Switzerland, France, and Austria.

According to the Swiss electricity supplier ATEL, a single tree fell across a line in the Alps during a storm, starting a domino affect which soon knocked out the entire Italian grid.

An ATEL spokesman however said the uprooting of a tree should not have been able to bring collapse to the Italian grid, and he blamed procedures at the Italian national operator GRTN for allowing the trouble to spread.

French electricity suppliers, initially blamed by Italy, also said the Italians had failed to react properly.

Industry experts say outages are always possible, even when for instance a maintenance man inserts a one-amp fuse instead of the correct three-amp fuse in a local relay station. But systems are designed so that a blackout should be contained, and not roll from one region to another. In Italy's case, this containment did not happen.

A spokesman for the Eurelectric group of electricity suppliers, Chris Boothby, said in Brussels that the collapse shows the need for investment and modernization of outdated equipment.

"When we have this kind of situation it is quite brutal, but it shows the market is working and producing economic signals that show we do need investment and development somewhere," Boothby said.

Boothby says national authorities around Europe must create an investor-friendly environment in the electricity sector so as to attract the necessary money.

In the wake of the trouble, EU energy commissioner Loyola de Palacio said the creation of a European single market for electricity would put an end to this type of power failure.

She said the presently fragmented European power network suffers chronic congestion at certain points and that it's time to give the EU's energy infrastructure a genuine Europe-wide dimension. She called for accelerated implementation of the commission's proposals for grid linkages. Her spokesman, Gilles Gantelet, points out that Italy is a net importer of electricity.

"One of Italy's main problems is that it is a country which is dependent on outside [sources of electricity] and if you are dependent on the outside, you need to have more capacities of inter-connection and more possibilities to react to such situations by having more links with the other markets," Gantelet said.

Gantelet says the EU as a whole can produce more electricity than it needs.

Gradual liberalization of EU power and gas markets officially began over the past summer. Under the plan, the market must be opened up to competition starting in stages from 1 July 2004.

The electricity suppliers in the Eurlectric group strongly support the EU efforts to create a single market. "We are wholeheartedly in favor, Eurelectric has always politically supported the development of a pan-European electricity market, this is our clear view, we supported the [EU] directives, the first electricity directive in 1996, and the second electricity directive, which has just been adopted by the Council of Ministers and the [European] Parliament this year in June, and further enhancing liberalization and competitive markets," spokesman Boothby said.

The Italian trouble at the weekend follows an extraordinary series of blackouts which have hit the advanced industrial countries since the late summer. The biggest occurred last month in the northeastern United States and Canada, which affected some 50 million people. That too saw a vast cascade of shutdowns stemming from a small local malady. There were also power failures in London and in the Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden.

This of course is intriguing at a time when countries are on alert for acts of terror and sabotage. There have been press reports of private academic research papers which referred to the ease with which informed terrorists could interfere with electricity supplies.

Officials in the United States have dismissed any sabotage aspect in the U.S. blackout. European officials have not addressed that issue. Still, conspiracy theorists are not easily deterred. They will certainly be waiting to see if there is another major blackout, and if so where, and how it can be fitted into a pattern of events.