Photo by AP Wideworld
Power Down Fans at the World Cup basketball trials await illumination during the power outage.

Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro, charging sabotage by his political opponents, is calling for a special security force to protect the country's electrical system after a failure on the power grid plunged more than 70% of the country into darkness this month.

Opposition leaders, denying the allegation, said it was merely an effort by the government to shift blame for the incident, which happened shortly after noon on Sept. 3. High-voltage transmission lines in Aragua and Guarico state failed, affecting 23 states and the capital of Caracas, said Venezuelan state TV. The power outage was unusual due to its extent and because it included the capital.

The country's energy minister, Jesse Chacon, later said the blackout was the result of a massive short circuit caused by a metal grill falling on the 765-kV transmission line. The outage left the capital and much of the country in darkness overnight.

Venezuela has suffered two other major outages this year, although none were on the scale of last week's. A blackout in February prompted the government to send the military to the affected area to secure powerplants.

The country's oil industry, on which the economy depends, was not affected by the blackout since it relies on its own plants for energy generation.

According to the Venezuelan Energy Ministry, the country's installed capacity is currently near 25,000 MW. Operational capacity often falls far short of the estimated 18,000-MW demand, leading to regular blackouts. Critics say the government has ignored investments needed to expand power production and satisfy rising consumption.

In 2007, the late president Hugo Chavez nationalized Venezuela's electrical system, including La Electricidad de Caracas, the capital's power utility. Since then, mismanagement and lack of maintenance have led to a lack of generation capacity.

Venezuela's largest fossil-fueled powerplant, the 2,000-MW Planta Centro, hasn't operated at maximum capacity for years, and, periodically, mechanical issues have idled its production. At the time of the blackout last week, the plant was operating at 82% capacity.

The Venezuelan government has repeatedly pushed back a $400-million overhaul to the facility and relied on stopgap measures to meet Caracas' energy needs.

Blackouts due to power shortages are not unknown in Venezuela but are relatively uncommon in the capital. In 2010, a massive energy shortage prompted a series of planned four-hour blackouts in Caracas, but they were rescinded after a single day due to mass chaos, particularly with traffic.

At that time, the electricity shortage was caused by an extended drought. More than 70% of Venezuela's electricity is generated by hydropower, primarily the 10,200-MW Guri Dam on the Caroni River. When reservoir levels fell to half their regular capacity, power production was hobbled.

Chavez railed against the country's "energy-wasting rich," whom he accused of using power in a profligate manner. Shortly afterward, the country's power-use data was made confidential and punishable by imprisonment, if revealed.