Eskom plans for a total blackout

2015-03-29 06:00

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A test was done this week to assess the country’s readiness in the event of a complete power shutdown

Eskom conducted a national simulation exercise this week to test how systems would function in the event of a national blackout.

City Press can reveal that, under the codename Exercise Breaking Dawn, the test took place on Monday to assess the country’s readiness in the event of a complete shutdown – this covered areas from emergency responses to how such a crisis would be communicated to the media and public.

The secret exercise involved the utility’s managers, operational staff and support staff who formed part of strategic command structures and divisional tactical command structures.

It was seen by some observers as a sign that Eskom was preparing itself for the worst-case scenario, something executives had been warning could happen if the country did not get its energy consumption under control.

Government and Eskom officials were unable to say whether a blackout simulation exercise had been undertaken in the country before, but indicated that the exercise was approved last year.

Earlier this year, now suspended 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 happens to collapse the national grid.

News of the simulation prompted the leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, to accuse government of keeping the country in the dark about its anticipation of a blackout.

Maimane has written to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa about what he calls a deepening crisis at Eskom. Ramaphosa this week told the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) he did not know anything about such drills.

Maimane wrote: “It has come to my attention that Eskom is running simulation exercises in preparation for a national blackout.

“It seems highly unlikely you would not be aware of Breaking Dawn, given your position in government and the fact that President Jacob Zuma has entrusted you with Eskom’s turnaround.

“This brings me to ask if you intentionally misled the nation, or were you concealing this information?”

However, government officials insist that running a a simulation exercise does not mean there is a blackout looming.

Government spokesperson Donald Liphoko said the simulation was routine. “We are not expecting a national blackout. There shouldn’t be cause for concern.” Liphoko said a blackout situation would only happen if “we go past stage four [load shedding], and that has never happened. We have never even come close to that.”

City Press has seen Eskom documents that detail the need for such a simulation exercise.

One of them reveals that Eskom undertakes a national exercise on an annual basis to prepare the organisation for a response to extreme events but that, in the past, these exercises addressed issues such as emergency-demand reduction.

“This year’s exercise will address a national blackout scenario, as confirmed by the [management committee] operations committee,” reads a briefing note from Ayanda Noah, Eskom’s chairperson for emergency response command centre.

The note is a seven-page document dated March 17 and addressed to Eskom’s executive committee, management committee operations, the emergency response command committee, divisional tactical command centres, national control and power station managers.

This information came out just more than a week after Maimane asked Ramaphosa, in a written question, whether provincial war rooms and the national war room were performing any emergency drills in anticipation of a national power grid failure.

Ramaphosa, who gave his answer orally in the NCOP, encouraged Maimane to submit evidence of such activities.

Maimane said it had become apparent that South Africans and Parliament were not being fully briefed by the department of public enterprises, Eskom and the war room, which fell within Ramaphosa’s purview.

He asked the deputy president to furnish Parliament with the following:

»?An accurate, comprehensive report on the maintenance taking place at power stations;

»?The likelihood of a national blackout; and

»?A live fortnightly briefing to the National Assembly on the state of Eskom.

The Eskom briefing note states that the utility is committed to ensuring that “the various layers of protection are in place” to prevent a blackout from occurring. These include load shedding, managing reserves and balancing the grid.

“In the unlikely event that all these layers of protection fail simultaneously, a national blackout is possible,” reads the document.

Exercises and tests are undertaken at various levels in this regard, including simulator training of national control staff and a variety of tests at the power stations, it says.

The exercise was also meant to expose participants to decision-making, existing plans, stakeholder management and crisis communication protocols under blackout conditions.

Another document, titled Divisional Resilience Programme – in preparation for a blackout exercise – reveals that the board audit and risk committee raised concerns Eskom and the country were not adequately prepared for a blackout.

It says national joint structures (disaster and security) have been instructed to develop a “country plan”.

In response to questions from City Press, Eskom said the exercise was undertaken successfully. It said it was confident “the eventuality of a blackout occurring is?...?highly unlikely”.

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, said his boss stood by the statement that “he was not aware of any drill by Eskom”.

Energy expert Chris Yelland welcomed Eskom’s preparations for a total blackout and said there was no reason to panic.

He believed an organisation such as Eskom should brace itself for every possible crisis, and should constantly improve plans for such crises.

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