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Power Outage Cuts Lights Across Italy

By TOM RACHMAN, Associated Press Writer

ROME - A massive blackout hit Italy on Sunday, cutting power to millions of people who woke up to find their phone lines silent and their televisions black, while drivers struggled through streets without traffic lights and trains remained stuck on the tracks.

Most of Italy's 57 million people were left without power, compared to the 50 million affected during the Aug. 14 blackout in the United States and Canada. By mid-morning, power was returning to the north but still remained out in most of Rome and the south.

Authorities urged citizens not to panic.

"Everybody stay calm," said Civil Defense chief Guido Bertolaso. "There is no major crisis at the moment."

He said 50 percent of Italy had regained power since the pre-dawn blackout hit, with electricity returning to some parts of the capital.

At a darkened cafe in Rome, manager Massimo Purificato complained that without his espresso machine and the ability to make croissants he couldn't keep a customer in the place.

"All the ice creams are melting. It's a disaster," he said. "We've lost money and clients. We've lost a lot of business."

Many Italian reports said the power cut originated in France, which provides the bulk of Italian electricity. French officials, meanwhile, denied responsibility.

An official of the Italian power company Enel said electricity connections in the Alps between Italy and France broke down before dawn for unknown reasons. Enel began using domestic hydroelectric plants to return power to some parts of the nation, the official said.

The outages hit at 3:25 a.m., state radio said. Regional electricity company ACEA said power went out everywhere across the nation except on the island of Sardinia, according to the ANSA news agency.

Carlo Andrea Bollino, the director of the Italian electrical network, ruled out terrorism. "All the data we have now is in line with a technical failure," Bollino said.

Hospitals were running on generators but it was unclear how long they could keep it up. Traffic accidents occurred across the nation as drivers zoomed through intersections without traffic lights, RAI state radio said. Airports cited major delays and canceled several flights.

Some 110 trains were stopped across the nation with 30,000 passengers on board, and hundreds of people were stranded during an all-night festival in Rome that kept museums and restaurants open around the clock, ANSA reported. The city had encouraged Romans and tourists to use public transport, but many stranded travelers ended up sleeping in the out-of-service subway stations.

By midmorning, electricity had returned to Venice, Milan and other northern cities.

The French state-run exporter of electricity insisted that it was not responsible for the Italian power outage, while the French Interior Ministry said it had no immediate reports of any outages in France.

Patrick Larradet, a spokesman for a subsidiary of French utility EDF that is responsible for delivering electricity to other countries, said there was a brief outage on the French border with Italy at about 3:25 a.m. "surely a result of storms" in the region. Service was quickly restored, he said.

At peak times, France ships the equivalent of about two nuclear power plants worth of electricity to Italy, Larradet said.

Power also went out for about three hours in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier in the night, but it was unclear if it was related to the Italian outage.

Austria, Slovakia and Croatia Italy's neighbors to the north and east reported no problems.

Trains from Switzerland were stopping at the southern Swiss town of Chiasso, unable to enter Italy because of the outage, said Viasuisse, Switzerland's travel information office. Most of Europe's trains are electric.

Italy was hit with partial power cuts in June, when people suffering in the scorching summer overloaded the system with air conditioners and other electricity-guzzling appliances. That was the first time in more than 20 years that the national operator of the electrical grid ordered power cuts.

Authorities have repeatedly said that power demand is growing faster than supply and that imported electricity would not make up for insufficient production in the long term.

A massive blackout hit vast swaths of the northern and eastern United States and parts of Canada on Aug. 14, affecting 50 million people and shutting down more than 100 power plants.

On Aug. 28, power briefly went out in parts of London and southeast England, shutting off traffic lights in the British capital and stranding hundreds of thousands of people on subways and trains.

Authorities are still investigating the U.S. and British outages.



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