Tue | Mar 19, 2019

Engineer: Satellite suggests fire caused Venezuela outage

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2019 | 12:19 AM
Seventy-two-year-old Elizabeth Guzmán Espitia holds a candle in the windowless room she calls her “little cave” during a blackout in the Santa Cruz of the East neighbourhood in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, March 14.” I’ve never see a crisis like this. It’s the first time,” Guzmán Espitia said.
Seventy-two-year-old Elizabeth Guzmán Espitia holds a candle in the windowless room she calls her “little cave” during a blackout in the Santa Cruz of the East neighbourhood in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday, March 14.” I’ve never see a crisis like this. It’s the first time,” Guzmán Espitia said.

In the week since a massive blackout left millions in Venezuela without power, both the government and opposition have put forward disputing theories on what caused the outage without providing any evidence.

Now, two Venezuelans with expertise in engineering and geospatial technologies, say that they have analysed NASA satellite imagery indicating that there were three fires within the proximity to transmission lines that could have crippled the country’s electric grid.

The sleuths took data from a weather satellite that can detect thermal activity and superimposed it on Google Earth images to put together what may be the most concrete analysis yet of what transpired on March 7.

“There is still a possibility that something else happened,” said José Aguilar, an expert on Venezuela’s electrical grid who coordinated the study. “But this is very incriminating.”

The power outage plunged a nation already reeling from political and economic tumult into even deeper disarray as hospitals struggled to care for their neediest patients and desperate Venezuelans grappled to find food and water.

Within hours of the attack, the government of embattled President Nicolás Maduro began accusing the United States of a cyberattack. Maduro has stuck to that narrative, saying that hackers in the United States first shut down the Guri Dam and then delivered several “electromagnetic” blows.

Engineers have questioned that assertion, contending that the Guri Dam’s operating system is on a closed network with no Internet connection. Several consulted by The Associated Press speculated that a more likely cause was a fire along one of the electrical grid’s powerful 765-kilovolt lines that connect the dam to much of Venezuela.

The transmission lines traverse through some of Venezuela’s most remote and difficult-to-access regions on their way toward Caracas, making it difficult to obtain any first-hand information that could back up or pinpoint the location of a fire.

Working with an expert at Texas Tech University’s Geospatial Technologies Laboratory, Aguilar said that satellite data indicate that on the day of the blackout, there were three fires in the proximity of the 765-kilovolt lines transmitting power generated from the Guri Dam, which provides about 80 per cent of Venezuela’s electricity.

He said that a fire on even one of the three lines near the blazes could have been catastrophic.

“A fire of that nature has enough power to cripple the whole system,” he said.

Their analysis also shows that fires broke out one day before the blackout near several lesser-voltage lines that could have also weakened the system.

Engineers have warned for years that Venezuela’s state-run electricity corporation was failing to properly maintain power lines, letting brush that can catch fire during Venezuela’s hot, dry months grow near and up the towering structures.

Aguilar said that despite the data to support a fire, he still couldn’t entirely discredit the possibility that something else crippled Venezuela’s power supply, saying that he would need to review dispatch centre files to conclude definitively.