* Electricity consumption fell 3 pct in Jan-Feb
* Government had set target of 20 pct
* Oil fuel and diesel use rise 23.5 pct
By Marianna Parraga
CARACAS, March 25 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s electricity use fell 3 percent in the first two months of this year compared with the 20 percent target set by the government in the face of an electricity crisis that threatens to leave the country in the dark.
Electricity use declined to 18,044 Gigawatts per hour (GWh) in January and February compared with 18,604 GWh during the same period last year, according to state power agency the Office of Operation of Interconnected Systems (OPSIS).
Venezuela’s hydroelectric dams, which provide 70 percent of the nation’s power, have been reduced to critically low levels following a prolonged drought widely thought to have been caused by the climatic phenomenon El Nino.
President Hugo Chavez has accused his political opponents of capitalizing on frustrations over the energy crisis ahead of legislative elections in September. But polls show the majority of Venezuelans blame his government for failing to invest in the sector despite rising demand.
Venezuela is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Since late December, the government has implemented a rationing plan combined with energy saving measures to halt the reduction of water levels in El Guri, the country’s principal reservoir, which is just 11 meters above its critical level when most of its turbines would stop working.
Light industry and businesses have had to slash electricity use by 20 percent or face being cut off by the authorities, even as Venezuela’s economy suffers a recession that led to a contraction of 3.3 percent last year.
Outside the capital Caracas, Venezuelans face power cuts of up to six hours a day. On Wednesday, Chavez decreed three extra vacation days during Easter week to save electricity.
OPSIS said the government had added 84.3 MWh of energy from diesel generators to the national grid to reduce the country’s dependence on hydropower. That provoked a 23.5 percent rise in the consumption of oil derivatives in January and February compared with the same period in 2009.
Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said Venezuela would require an additional 100,000 barrels of diesel per day once all the new thermoelectric plants were up and running, which is likely to reduce exports.