ANTHONY BUTLER: If the grid collapses, SA is a few meals away from chaos

First published in BusinessLive 30 June 2022

Load-shedding has wrought havoc on the economy in recent weeks. It has also left some investors and citizens nervous about the possibility of a total grid collapse.

National blackouts can be triggered by a variety of factors. Terrorists, for whom SA has mercifully not been a major target, pose one threat. Another is state-sponsored hackers and cybercriminals, who have attacked energy infrastructure in the US, Eastern Europe and India in recent years.

SA faces the more prosaic danger that random or hard to predict disturbances — caused by ageing and poorly maintained infrastructure, imbalances between demand and available capacity, human error and weather events — might trigger an electricity system crisis.

When parts of a power grid fail, demand shifts to nearby elements in the system. If these are pushed beyond their capacity they too will fail. In a largely automated process, overloaded transformers, cables and switches trip. They do so very quickly, because control signals and electrical power move at the same speed, making it impossible to isolate an outage. This results in cascading failures of a kind that have been seen in Europe, Asia and the Americas, as well as Africa, in recent years.

The implications of total grid failure are alarming. Key parts of national infrastructure, including hospitals, telecommunications systems, mines, sewage treatment plants and water pumping stations, have generator or battery backup that can sustain them through intermittent power cuts, but not for extended periods.

Transport, logistics, security, financial services and payments systems cannot continue for long with the grid down. Televisions and radios will go off, cellphones will die, sewage plants will overflow, and petrol stations will run out of fuel. Pretty soon food supply chains will freeze. Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin once observed that, “every society is three meals away from chaos”. The British domestic intelligence service, MI5, has estimated four.

Restoring power after a system-wide power loss is hard. A “black start” uses small generators to start larger ones, which can eventually restart main generators. Local power “islands” reconnect with others, eventually restoring a complete grid after days or weeks. Eskom’s black start contingency plans centre on pump storage stations, as well as on the Kendall and Tutuka plants.

In April Eskom CEO André de Ruyter observed that a total system failure is, in any event, “highly unlikely” and he rightly cautioned against “fearmongering and stoking of speculation”. Energy professionals note that SA’s extended experience of load-shedding has habituated key actors across the system — from the control room of the system operator to the municipal officials who flick the load-shedding switches — to working together effectively.

There are special dangers associated with a crisis situation though. Consensus is building in favour of “emergency action” designed quickly to supplement grid capacity through solar, wind and battery storage. This will require circumvention of licensing, environmental and regulatory controls, which opens up the possibility of corruption and misallocation of resources.

In addition, there is a danger that politics will disable functional parts of the energy system. Municipal politicians may rebel against load-shedding, especially when some parts of the local state — most notably in the Western Cape — have successfully insulated their residents from the worst consequences.

Moreover, while the system operator retains primary responsibility for ensuring the grid doesn’t collapse and it has so far been insulated against political interference, it is essential that desperate ministers and officials do not use a crisis as an excuse to interfere in its work.

Finally, we need reassurance that Eskom’s black start protocols are adequate. These ostensibly include routine stress testing of the utility’s capacity to shut down and then restore power. Are these protocols really being respected in this time of relentless stress on the entire electricity system and on the people working in it?

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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