Cabinet briefed on risk of nationwide blackout

2015-02-01 15:01

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Cabinet has been briefed by Eskom about the risk of a total national electricity blackout – and the US embassy in Pretoria has drawn up an evacuation plan partly designed to get its staff out safely if the lights go off in South Africa once and for all.

Senior government sources told City Press that Eskom late last year presented a bleak picture of what would happen if load shedding failed and the system shut down completely.

“It’s a fact. They said we needed to do maintenance because the system was unreliable and would shut down,” said a senior government official.

Eskom warned government that, if the system crashed, it would take at least two weeks to reboot.

A second official privy to the information presented to Cabinet said the “two-week warning” was based on what had happened in California when its electricity system shut down in 2011.

“When your car battery is flat, you need additional capacity to be able to boost it. This is how our system works. California had to buy an amount of power equal to their total capacity to be able to reboot their system,” the second official said.

“We don’t want to go there, because all our neighbours are buying from us. No one in Africa has 42?000MW of power.”

The insider said Eskom had warned government it had no option but to continue load shedding, despite senior ANC and government officials being unhappy about the ongoing power cuts.

“We can’t afford a total blackout. We don’t have that luxury,” the second official said.

Reuters reported on Friday that in the event of a national blackout, President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet would be taken to a secret location and soldiers would be deployed at national key points, such as the SA Reserve Bank and the SABC’s head office in Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

Eskom this week refused to be drawn on the chances of a large-scale blackout happening and merely said it would continue to implement load shedding to protect the grid, as this was the best way to protect South Africa’s power system.

US embassy staff are now taking a hard look at South Africa’s power situation on a daily basis.

US Embassy spokesperson Jack Hillmeyer confirmed the embassy had a plan, but said it was “standard procedure”.

“The safety and security of our American and local staff and facilities is a top priority,” he said. “As we do in our locations throughout the world, we plan and prepare for possible emergency situations we may face. Our planning in South Africa is similar to what we do in all countries.”

Hillmeyer said he could not discuss specifics about safety and security planning for “obvious reasons”.

Eskom sources have told City Press a national blackout was a “very significant possibility for the foreseeable future”.

Two sources told City Press the situation had become even worse over the past month.

Eskom should be able to generate 43 300MW of power on a 24-hour basis. However, on a good day, the power utility only produces 71% of its generation capacity owing to faults at its power stations – and the need for maintenance is critical. Lately, according to the utility’s own graphs, they have been operating at 65% on most days.

Two mid-level technical managers working at Eskom told City Press “the standing at the edge of the precipice” scenario was certainly not a secret within Eskom.

“We can handle crises with careful management, but if a perfect storm were to hit, with two power stations experiencing breakdowns without warning, we would be in deep trouble,” said one.

“And it is not unrealistic. Have you seen what Eskom’s power stations look like? The fact that more incidents haven’t taken place is a miracle.”

The second manager said the only way to handle the crisis was to be especially diligent when it came to load shedding.

“When there is an incident, we have to switch off. And whoever is watching the grid can’t take their eye off the ball for a second. Even if there is an escalation of incidents, as long as we apply load shedding to keep the demand below the supply, we will be okay. But we are so close to disaster that many of our people come to work every day fearing for the worst.”

Two weeks ago, Eskom CEO Tshediso Matona told a closed meeting of 100 of South Africa’s top business leaders that his senior management “prays every day” that nothing unforeseen happened to collapse the national grid infrastructure, causing a potentially catastrophic nationwide blackout.

A CEO in the telecommunications industry, who did not attend the meeting, but was informed of Matona’s message, told City Press companies not drawing up plans for a worst-case scenario were being “daft”.

“We certainly have had meetings on the issue and God help us all if it does happen, but we can’t sit around doing nothing if the Eskom head himself has warned us,” he said. He did not want to elaborate on his company’s plans to survive a national blackout.

People who keep lights on

Last year, when City Press visited Eskom’s National Control Centre, manager Al’louise van Deventer (pictured) said it was critical officials at the centre never took their eyes off the grid – even a second of negligence could prove costly.

With so little spare electricity available, employees couldn’t even slip away for a bathroom break – they had to ask one of their colleagues to fill in for them and watch their controls. To prevent a catastrophe, Van Deventer’s technicians had to be on the ball as well.

“We look at employees when they check in and make sure they are [well grounded],” said Van Deventer during our visit to the centre last August.

The centre’s precise location is a heavily guarded secret and journalists are not allowed to take phones or recording devices inside.

“This is definitely not a job for excitable people,” said Van Deventer.

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