With Eskom having clearly lost the load shedding battle, fears have now shifted to the threat of a total blackout that could collapse essential and emergency services and unleash mayhem. But experts believe these dangers are exaggerated and that a collapse of Eskom’s national grid is unlikely. Eskom's national control centre Thinus Booysen, University of Stellenbosch engineering professor and research chair in the Internet of Things, did not think the probability of a total grid collapse was high. “There is always a risk, but I do not think that risk is big. What Eskom does at their national control centre…
With Eskom having clearly lost the load shedding battle, fears have now shifted to the threat of a total blackout that could collapse essential and emergency services and unleash mayhem.
But experts believe these dangers are exaggerated and that a collapse of Eskom’s national grid is unlikely.
Eskom’s national control centre
Thinus Booysen, University of Stellenbosch engineering professor and research chair in the Internet of Things, did not think the probability of a total grid collapse was high.
“There is always a risk, but I do not think that risk is big. What Eskom does at their national control centre is keep the margin between what is generated and what is consumed. So there is always a safety margin. So when the safety margin gets small, it immediately knocks up to the next stage of load shedding,” he said.
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One generating unit, Booysen explained, produces half a gigawatt of electricity and the margin they now have is more than this. Even if two units were to breakdown at the same time, it would not cause a total collapse.
He said it would require, in a matter of minutes, four or five units to breakdown at the same time before there was a total collapse.
“So I do not think the probability of a total grid collapse is high. The demand is quite predictable and Eskom is continuously monitoring the status,” Booysen said.
Energy analyst Chris Yelland also said although there was a risk of a total blackout, probabilities were low.
Insurance companies have considered the risk of total a blackout high enough that they are starting to refuse to insure it, he said. Yelland explained risk was a combination of a probability of an event and the consequences. The risk of a total grid collapse was not insignificant because the consequences were high, he said.
“Insurance companies are in the risk business and they have actuaries that calculate the risk. They have calculated that the financial risk is too high for them to insure.”
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This was why Eskom make plans on how to prevent a total grid collapse, how to recover from total blackout and had detailed plans in place – as they should, Yelland said.
The national control centre ensures that there is no national blackout by balancing supply and demand, he said. However, the worst-case scenario is dire.
Warlords and crime bosses
According to defence and security advisor Eeben Barlow, one of the greatest dangers facing SA – given the poor efforts at maintaining law and order – if the country experienced a grid collapse, was the rise of warlords and crime bosses.
“These elements will assume total control of roads, cities, bridges, including banks and ATMs. The intelligence services will be unable to assess and check incoming intelligence against the existing intelligence database.
“With traffic lights unworkable, emergency services will be unable to navigate through the traffic congestion. Hospitals will be forced to close.”
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Barlow said reservoirs will be depleted; urban areas will be hit by water shortages that will ultimately spark riots and protests. This chaos will give rise to rampant criminality and a rise in armed anti-government forces, as well as attacks on police stations and ammunition stores, he said.
Booysen said he was not aware of any contingency plan in place in the event of a total blackout, or how long it would take to get the system up again. Restarting the system could anything from a day to a week.
Does Eskom know what it’s doing?
“The big question is: has Eskom done this before and do they know what they are doing? In developed countries like the US it took a matter of half a day and I am not sure Eskom is well equipped to get things up and running in a good, well managed sequence.”
Each generating unit, he said, produced half a gigawatt and that in an event of a total blackout, Eskom would have to start by getting each unit going one by one.
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“So, they will fire it up and get it running slowly and connect suburbs to it. If the load is too big, the system will collapse again and you have to start afresh. Fortunately with load shedding they have experience with switching on and off,” he said.