Letter from Buenos Aires: the big blackout

Being forced to go without electricity sparks thoughts about living differently for Virginia Tognola.

Illustraion of a woman reading in the dark in a park
By Sarah John

Back in January, we had an intense heatwave. For a short while Buenos Aires and its surrounding provinces became the hottest part of the world. Air conditioners got cranked up, power consumption escalated and, inevitably, the grid fell short. For one sweltering week, entire neighbourhoods experienced constant outages. To some extent, power cuts are commonplace during summer in Argentina, but this year the problem was more acute.

Even though – compared to other countries – the price we pay for electricity is still relatively low, rates have been rising in spurts. Every time I pay an electricity bill I mutter to myself: ‘Damn you, scammers.’ It seems crazy to be paying so much for a service that is a basic need.

But such dependence on electricity is an urban thing: in other places people have got used to doing without. In Esquina, the small town where I was born and raised, power lines are in such a bad state that people can experience months of blackouts. Some rural areas still aren’t connected to the grid. I remember when we used to visit my grandfather, who lived in one such place. He taught me tricks to cool environments and liquids without air conditioning or a refrigerator, or how to maximize the light of candles. I learned how essential it is to start the day at dawn and end it at sunset. This makes me think that urban dwellers like myself are so comfortable overconsuming energy that we can’t think of any alternatives. Paradoxically, this way of life leads to overburdened grids and blackouts.

The blackout got me thinking that perhaps now is a good time to put new ways of living on the agenda that are not tied to the comforts we take for granted

As I’m a big fan of the hot weather, I took the blackouts during our heatwave in my stride – except for the last night in the dark. What got to me it wasn’t the suffocating heat but the boredom. It was one of those humid nights. A storm was imminent. I put together a tereré – a cold drink made from juice and yerba mate – using the last surviving ice cubes from my freezer. I grabbed my book, a blanket, and went to the park around the block from my house. It was the only place close by with working lights. Although it was almost dawn, the park was full – families with chairs, kids playing football, a group of friends listening to music, everyone escaping from hot and unlit enclosed spaces.

A friend who lives in another part of the city called to warn me that they were experiencing a storm, and that within minutes the rain would reach where I was. I wanted to finish a chapter before going back home, but it was too late; the first drops started to fall, and soon the storm was hosing everyone away from the park, except for the kids playing football. When I reached home, I lit some candles and leaned back in my armchair to continue reading – what else could I do? – and a few hours later the power came back on. The small drop in temperature caused by the rain had calmed down the power grid.

As we say here, ‘la saqué barata’ – meaning I got lucky. Some people went for up to 10 days without power. The government finally decided to fine the electricity companies, which had to offer a refund to affected clients. But it was tiny compared to the losses suffered. People lost all their refrigerated food, and some appliances got damaged.

Of course, the main culprits of this problem are the companies who avoid investing in infrastructure. But it got me thinking that perhaps now is a good time to put new ways of living on the agenda that are not tied to the comforts we take for granted. Time to start questioning the environmental and social consequences that come with overconsuming urban lifestyles.

Recently I’ve heard on the news warnings of possible power outages, not just in summer but for the approaching winter. Maybe they exaggerate, but I am getting myself ready for a winter with less power consumption, and thinking of alternatives to my electrical heater in case of another blackout.