US warns SA: prepare for a complete grid crash

The US government has cautioned its stakeholders in South Africa – advising that preparation for a complete power grid crash is necessary. The extremely high levels of power cuts throughout the nation has sparked major concern. Thus, they advocate for the planning of disaster management strategies – clearly stating that these plans cannot rely on the national government. “If any mitigation plan has any reliance on the state, you’ve got a very poor mitigation strategy in place”. Read about this warning in the My Broadband article below. – Carmen Mileder

US government warning about Eskom — time to think about total grid collapse

By Jan Vermeulen

The United States Government has advised its stakeholders in South Africa to start thinking about disaster management plans for a total collapse of Eskom’s power grid.

Although a blackout remains unlikely, the risk has increased due to how unreliable Eskom’s coal fleet has become. This is evident by the higher levels of load-shedding South Africa is experiencing.

The consequences of a total blackout would also be devastating, making it worth preparing for even if the likelihood is low.

The US Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) convened a meeting with stakeholders last week to discuss business security concerns surrounding Eskom and load-shedding.

Representatives from several large US-based corporations with operations in South Africa and large local companies participated in the meeting.

MyBroadband has viewed a recording of the meeting. After speaking to one of the participants, we learned they were all asked to agree to the Chatham House Rule.

It should be noted MyBroadband was not party to the agreement. However, we chose not to identify any participants by name to avoid them being punished for speaking their minds.

A US Government minerals and energy expert focusing on South Africa said that they are still not very worried about a total blackout.

“I have a lot of faith in Eskom System Operators. I think they really know what they’re doing,” they said.

“But when you start to get this level of load-shedding, and the amount of power plants that are tripping, I think it’s something we need to start thinking about.”

They said that although a total blackout presents several dangers, the primary threat is the time it takes to bring a system back up from that total collapse.

“Eskom estimates, in the best case scenario, it would take 6–14 days to restart the power grid,” the official said.

South Africa’s grid topology makes a “black start” like this challenging because it’s so spread out, and because Eskom is in a power island.

“There are a few feeder lines from other countries, but not enough to help with a black start situation,” the US Government official said.

“To start one unit at Medupi would require a 60-megawatt generator. It’s a massive amount of power just to get a Medupi unit started.”

Medupi damage
A generating unit at Medupi exploded in August 2021 after technicians failed to purge leaking hydrogen before allowing it to mix with oxygen. Miraculously, no one was injured.

Citing an Eskom presentation to the US Embassy in Pretoria, they said the power utility believes there would be looting and civil unrest if the grid collapses.

They quoted an unnamed individual as saying, “What’s left after a blackout would be what was left after a civil war.”

The official emphasised that Eskom was talking about the ruinous consequences of a blackout to illustrate why load-shedding is critical.

Eskom has repeatedly explained that load-shedding is necessary precisely to prevent a total collapse of the grid.

Gauteng residents may have an advantage over the rest of the country due to the density of the electricity network in the province.

However, the US Government official said Eskom would not confirm how long it would take to bring Pretoria back online after a blackout.

Eskom has publicly stated that it would have to restart the system in islands, beginning with the interior network.

“I think our power in Gauteng would come back faster, but that’s just supposition,” the official said.

Network outages, water shortages

Major considerations for organisations developing blackout plans is the eventual failure of South Africa’s telecommunications networks, and water and fuel shortages.

The official said Eskom told them in 2021 that mobile sites would be available for 2–4 hours, and to expect telecommunications backbone failure within 8 hours.

They acknowledged that this information was old and the backup power situation had likely improved since then.

Based on feedback MyBroadband has received from South Africa’s network operators, fibre networks will be able to operate for some time, provided that data centres and Internet exchange points can remain powered.

However, batteries at cellular sites will start running empty after 4–6 hours, severely impacting mobile communications in South Africa.

“Water reserves would be severely impacted. There would be no sewage pumps,” the US Government official warned.

“Data centres and power stations could run out of water.”

While there are 48-hour water guidelines for municipalities, they don’t all have them.

“Liquid fuel would be a challenge for everybody. Eskom would [also] have a hard time getting liquid fuel to their [open-cycle gas turbines],” they said.

The US Government warned attendees that they would be unable to rely on South Africa’s national security structures as they would be stretched too thin.

One attendee from a major South African financial institution added to this, saying that any disaster management plan could not rely on the government at all.

“If any mitigation plan has any reliance on the state, you’ve got a very poor mitigation strategy in place,” they said.

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