Over half of Portugal plunged into Darkness

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FRONT PAGE STORY - 13/05/2000

Portugal turns black - inquiry ordered

Power blackout plunges half the country into darkness. A stork circuit or a striking saboteur?. More than half of the country was immersed in darkness this week following, a power failure at a substation situated north of Lisbon. The Minister of Internal Affairs has already ordered a full inquiry into Tuesday evening's unprecedented events. The director of the National Electricity Network (REN) went on live radio on Wednesday afternoon, saying the blackout was caused by "a stork colliding with a power line". No wonder a full inquiry has been ordered.

The Greater Lisbon Area, was joined by the Alentejo, the Algarve and isolated areas in the north of the country as, according to Portugal's electricity chief, Gil Vicente, a stork switched half the country's lights off.

Prior to the stork theory, a thunder bolt was blamed for the occurrence.

What is certain is that the problem originated in Figueira da Foz, at the Vale do Mondego substation 200 kilometres north of Lisbon, one of the country's principal high tension electricity distribution posts. This post is linked to substations at Recarei (near Oporto, which serves the north) and that at Rio Maior ( which serves the south). Reporters from the television station TVI went to inspect the 30-year-old Belgian built Rio Maior substation on Wednesday. They found the gates open and freely roamed about within the perimeters of the high tension post.

The EDP automatic protection system, "inexplicably" failed to detect the short-circuit. And in eight seconds, following the ruffling of a stray stork's feathers by 400,000 kw, half the country was without electricity.

Darkness prevailed in affected areas for at least one hour as technicians scurried to rectify the problem, which was recorded at 22h15. In Ivora however, lights were only back two and a half hours later.

Power supply cuts were reported from Torres Vedras in the north, stretching 400 kilometres south until the Algarve.

EDP, Portugal's national energy provider, immediately discounted reports that the cut was caused by an act of sabotage or terrorism. They did however heed to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Fernando Gomes' demand that an inquiry should be launched to discover the cause of the blackout and provide reasons as to why such a great part of the country was affected by the problems at a single substation.

On Tuesday morning, a "power surge" at the Tunes substation in the Algarve caused periodical power losses in western parts of the region. Technicians also spent the largest part of the week repairing "considerable damage" at substations in Braga, Guimarces, Alcobaga, Abrantes and Alverca, said to have been caused by thunderstorms.

Most hospitals and emergency units were affected by Tuesday evening's blackout, though no serious problems were reported as these centres are all equipped with generators.

Trains and the underground in the capital were brought to a complete standstill, and remained stationery for at least 20 minutes. Traffic lights were also non-functional. Congestion was reported throughout the city, the most significant being around Campo Grande.

A spokesperson for the Lisbon Traffic Department said that no incidents of any repute were recorded during the electricity failure: "No robberies nor serious accidents were reported, and all available officers and vehicles were immediately despatched to the streets".

Given that Tuesday witnessed one of the largest strikes in recent years by state employees, observers were questioning the likelihood that a disgruntled employee might have been responsible. Maria Antsnia Fonseca, EDP public relations officer, was eager to explain that "nobody at EDP was on strike. It was not sabotage".

The Minister of Finance and Economy, Pina Moura, joined his fellow cabinet minister's position, stating that an inquiry, led under his auspices, will also be opened.

The power cut resulted in fire stations and civil protection unit offices being inundated with calls. The EDP's information line offered only a recorded message telling callers that "we are aware of the problem and it is being investigated". The Lisbon Fire Department said it took them 20 minutes to enter into contact with the EDP to discover the magnitude of the problem.

The REN director, meanwhile guaranteed that similar difficulties to those experienced on Tuesday evening will not reoccur in the future, "as the affected line will be suspended without any consequences to supply. In other words, the defect is eliminated and no customer will be left without electricity".

One wonders why this supposedly simple operation was not carried out on Tuesday. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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-- meg davis (meg9999@aol.com), May 13, 2000

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