* Outages hit eight states on Tuesday night
* Caracas faces staggered cuts for maintenance, metro hit
* Colombia bomb causes failure of major power plant
(Adds comment on electricity system, gas pipeline still down)
By Frank Jack Daniel
CARACAS, March 30 Widespread power failures hit
Venezuela this week, leaving eight states including
oil-producer Zulia without light for hours and causing chaos on
the Caracas metro in a new headache for President Hugo Chavez.
Staggered blackouts will also be imposed on several areas
of the capital for maintenance until Friday, the city's
state-owned power company said in a statement. Experts predict
irregular services will continue in the coming months.
Hours-long blackouts hit the eight states on Tuesday when
the main power station in Zulia failed after a suspected rebel
bomb on a Colombian gas pipeline that feeds it.
As a result, power was cut in three states to ration
supplies, Vice President Elias Jaua said late in the evening.
"What happened tonight in Lara, Carabobo and Anzoategui,
among others, was part of a rationing plan to balance the
national system, which at the moment is facing high demand from
states such as Zulia as a result of the outage at its main
electricity plant," Jaua said in a phone call to state TV.
Four states in the OPEC member's Andean region were also
left in the dark when a transmission cable failed late on
Tuesday, state electricity company Corpolec said.
To cap it all, Caracas' main metro line collapsed during
Tuesday's morning and evening rush-hours, causing panic as
thousands of people were evacuated from packed trains after an
electricity failure. Sporadic problems were reported with the
metro on Wednesday.
Last year a long drought revealed severe weaknesses in
Venezuela's electricity generating system, forcing power
rationing for months.
Chavez declared a national emergency then and ordered
billions of dollars of investments to install oil-fired plants
aimed at reducing the country's dependence on hydropower.
But he canceled a plan to ration electricity in Caracas
after a chaotic first day of cuts last year left poor,
crime-ridden neighborhoods in the dark and workers stuck in
Miguel Lara, who formerly ran the coordinating body of the
national grid, said the problems revealed by the drought were
still present despite ample rainfall in recent months.
"The electricity crisis is still latent because there is
stress on the system. The infrastructure is insufficient to
meet the demand," he told Reuters. "We will continue to suffer
unexpected service cuts."
The gas pipeline that exploded on Monday in Colombia is
owned by Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA and operated by
Chevron (CVX.N). It remained out of service on Wednesday.
"They are in the process of repairing the gas pipeline, and
it is not yet transporting," said an official at Colombian
state oil company Ecopetrol.
Lara said Zulia's Termozulia electricity plant, designed to
run on oil as well as gas, should not have suffered an outage
because of the damaged pipeline.
"It seems diesel was not available in the tanks," he said.
Venezuela's fuel consumption is growing rapidly, partly due
to the government's strategy of building oil-fired power
stations. Diesel consumption was up 27 percent in February,
which means less export income for the state.
(Additional reporting by Marianna Parraga in Caracas and
Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Toni