* World’s top copper producer seeks to avoid blackouts
* Drought, power station delays hit central Chile
* Energy-saving measures likely extended to Oct
SANTIAGO, April 6 (Reuters) - Chile will likely extend energy-saving measures through October, as a drought slows hydro power generation and delays starting up two new coal-fired plants hits an already blackout-prone, fragile electric grid, a senior energy official was quoted as saying on Friday.
The world’s top copper producer will probably decide next week to prolong for a third time measures first introduced last year to reduce voltages and cut use of water from r e servoirs, Deputy Energy Minister Sergio del Campo told El Mercurio newspaper.
The country’s third consecutive drought and the delays starting up two new power stations have compounded energy problems in Chile, whose grid is already suffering from years of underinvestment and a massive earthquake in early 2010.
“Everything indicates it would be reasonable to extend (rationing),” del Campo was quoted as saying.
He said newly-named Energy Minister Jorge Bunster, the fifth person to occupy the post during President Sebastian Pinera’s two-year administration, will likely announce the extension of the power-saving measures.
The measures, which had been due to expire this month, include reducing voltage by up to 10 percent in the country’s central energy grid.
The central grid, or SIC in its Spanish initials, which supplies more than 90 percent of the population, is most likely to be hit by the energy squeeze because of its reliance on hydro power. The far northern grid, which powers miners in the copper-rich north, mostly uses energy generated by thermal plants.
Generator Colbun’s Santa Maria coal plant will come on line in June, as opposed to April, and generator Endesa’s Bocamina II will come on line in August, instead of June, del Campo said.
“This is clearly bad news but it doesn’t put the system at risk,” he said.
Energy blackouts remain a risk, former energy minister Rodrigo Alvarez told Reuters in February, and it will take years to head off a repetition of massive blackouts such as one in September 2011 that hit operations at major mines and cost state copper giant Codelco over 1,400 tonnes in lost output.
The government estimates that to keep up with rising energy demand, some 8,000 megawatts of capacity will need to be added by 2020 to the current 17,000 megawatts in the country’s power matrix.