Meet SA’s most ‘powerful’ woman

2014-08-18 08:00

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The next time you complain your job is the toughest in South Africa, spare a thought for the woman who must decide when the lights stay on – and when they go out. Yolandi Groenewald meets the country’s most ‘powerful’ woman

At 5am on Thursday, March 6, a grim, bleary-eyed group of men and women gathered in a room in Germiston, east of Joburg.

They had known for a few days that the country’s power grid was in trouble, but in the early hours of that morning, another machine blew.

Al’louise van Deventer and her team gathered at Eskom’s National Control Centre on Joburg’s East Rand – and, at 7.55am, after nearly three hours of meetings, decided to start load shedding.

At 8am, the first switches were flipped and the darkness spread across the country.

Van Deventer is Eskom’s National Control Centre manager – a calm woman with nerves of steel who must ultimately decide when the country’s power load needs to be shed.

She works with a team of technicians and engineers who monitor the power grid from the control centre, a high-tech space filled with screens, computers, buttons and levers.

Since 2008, South Africa’s power supply has been skating on thin ice and will be constrained at least until the delayed Medupi coal-powered station comes online next year.

This means the technicians in the nerve centre must watch every power station with eagle eyes so they are always a step ahead of a developing crisis.

On March 6, Van Deventer and her team jumped straight to the most severe load shedding state, stage?3, for 14 hours to stabilise the grid.

Load shedding has been rare – but every time it happens, the state-owned power utility’s reputation and popularity dips. But Van Deventer isn’t interested in winning popularity contests.

“If we don’t initiate load shedding when it is needed, we will lose the whole country,” she says during a media visit to the control centre.

“South Africa will be without electricity for at least two weeks – and two weeks is the best-case scenario.”

If you imagine that braaiing your meals for two weeks or not being able to blow-dry your hair is just a mild inconvenience, Van Deventer is quick to ruin your mood.

“The country will shut down. There will be no cellphone signals, the communication industry will shut down, traffic will grind to a halt and sewerage systems will become flooded because there is no electricity for pumps,” she says.

“That is the consequence of not load shedding when you have to.”

Blackouts aren’t a uniquely South African problem. In 2003, parts of Manhattan in New York were without power for two weeks. There, a neighbouring state’s grid was used to help the city kick-start its own supply.

South Africa doesn’t have that luxury. Our neighbours’ grids aren’t powerful enough to help, so Eskom will be on its own in a crisis.

Van Deventer and her team know what they will have to do: the grid will be started slowly with a generator, something called a black-start unit kept in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

If all goes smoothly, the power will be fully restored in two weeks. If anything goes wrong, the whole process will have to start over.

Steve Lennon, Eskom group executive for sustainability, says the national control centre’s employees are under strict instructions to load-shed when needed – no matter who tells them otherwise.

The centre has been defined as a national key point: journalists had to leave their cellphones and cameras behind and be screened twice for any hidden technology before entering the room.

A huge screen featuring multiple boxes lights up the room, allowing employees to monitor the state of power supply nationwide, in real time.

Another box shows South Africa’s network of transmission lines and warns technicians about a fire under the lines or a fault on the grid.

A critical box displays the projected power needed for the day, predicated on consumers’ historical behaviour and what will be available that day.

Weather plays a big role in the predictions. When the temperature plummets, even by a degree or two, South Africans become more power hungry.

Van Deventer and her team are guided by a definitive set of rules about when to implement load shedding, making it less of a subjective decision.

“We have very specific parameters.”

Each technician has his or her own work station to personally monitor whatever responsibility they’ve been assigned.

Some must check the grid’s frequency – it is not allowed to drop under 50Hz – and others check that all is well with the transmission lines.

Data is updated every four seconds and alarm bells sound when there is a problem.

Six engineers and technicians work 12-hour shifts, five times a week.

The work at the national control centre is so critical that employees cannot simply slip away for a bathroom break – they have to ask someone to watch their controls for the five minutes.

The Germiston centre also has a top-secret twin that can take over its responsibilities if it is compromised. The location of the twin is a state secret.

Most of the technicians and engineers in the control centre have been with Eskom for more than 30 years and have the necessary experience to be calm and collected in a crisis, she explains.

But they are introducing new employees, carefully screening each candidate to check their stress reactions.

“We look at employees when they check in and we make sure they are connected to the earth,” says Van Deventer.

“This is not a job for excitable people.”

Eskom’s ‘mission control’

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