Argentina to ration electricity during heat wave

Buenos Aires (AFP) –


Argentinians sweltering through a major heat wave received another dose of bad news on Thursday when the authorities announced they will ration electricity in the capital Buenos Aires.

The measure is aimed at alleviating an energy crisis during the southern hemisphere's summer, when peak demand for electricity -- driven largely by air conditioners running at full capacity -- is tapping the power grid.

Electricity demand is hitting new records every day, the energy ministry said, "adding to the precariousness of the production and distribution system, which made the emergency measures necessary."

The government will maintain three-hour cuts to greater Buenos Aires on weekdays for the duration of the heat wave, the ministry said, announcing the programmed cuts to the capital and its outskirts after a series of unscheduled power stoppages in recent weeks.

The cuts -- scheduled between 1 pm (1600 GMT) and 4 pm -- are set to begin Thursday and affect 400,000 people, the ministry said.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers have complained in recent weeks about the surprise cuts which lasted up to 20 hours.

Power companies are often unable to meet demand during summer after years of insufficient investment in production and distribution.

Argentina's electricity consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, encouraged by government subsidies and the use of energy-efficient appliances. Bimonthly power bills for Buenos Aires residents often come to less than $10.

The country's new center-right president, Mauricio Macri, has promised to hike electricity bills, saying subsidies currently costing around $4 billion a year will soon go only to the poor -- a break from the policy of his predecessor, the populist Cristina Kirchner.

Macri, who came to power in December, also promised to invest more in the power industry.

In another sign of change, the United States announced on Thursday that President Barack Obama will visit Argentina next month to show support for Macri, who is opening the economy after years of protectionism under Kirchner's center-left government.