Prepare For National Blackout Eskom’s Woes Are Worse Than We Know

Energy Analysts and Experts have warned that a National Blackout is entirely possible - if not probable - as beleaguered power utility, Eskom, races against time to keep South Africa's lights on. What does a national blackout entail, how probable is it, and how did South Africa get here?
Jason Snyman
2019-03-20

If you’re reading this, you’re one of the lucky few to have a fuel-powered generator. It’s not environmentally friendly. It’s loud. It’s woefully expensive. But it gets the job done, for now. The nights are cold, and long, and South Africa has been swallowed up by the darkness. The roads are untenable – chaos, mayhem, endless streams of traffic as far as the eye can see. Many businesses have shut down. Inoperable. The cities are paralyzed and crippled. The looting has begun. 

Phew, okay, so we’re not quite there yet. Many South Africans, however, are concerned that this may be what’s on the cards for our near future. South Africa’s power utility (now that’s an oxymoron if we’ve ever seen one) is rumoured to be on its last legs. Eskom’s relentless idiocy knows no bounds, and as far as it attempts to bail water, it’s rocking the boat further and further below the surface. 

What’s happening in South Africa, right now, is tragic, infuriating and horribly complicated. Let’s see if we can lay it all out, nice and clear, in point form.

  • According to energy analysts and advisors, a complete and total collapse of the power grid is entirely possible – if not expected before the end of 2019. Eskom officials have, themselves, admitted that the company is in a race against time to prevent this catastrophe from happening.

  • Eskom is gearing up to introduce Stage 5 and Stage 6 load-shedding for the first time in SA history, which requires 5 000MW and 6 000MW to be shed from the grid, respectively. Depending on where you are living, this could mean up to six rounds of load-shedding – or twelve hours – per day. 

  • Eskom is currently, at the time of writing, missing 5 000MW of power from eight generator units, which are down due to boiler tube leaks. Three generators are still up and running, but operating with high-risk boiler tube leaks. Eskom stopped the vital boiler tube maintenance programme eighteen months ago, and has been unable to provide any viable reason for this.

  • South Africa is receiving no power from Mozambique’s Cahora-Bassa hydroelectric generation station, due to Cyclone Idai.

  • Eskom opted to burn through R5 billion worth of diesel over the last year to run its open-cycle gas turbine peaking plants, instead of fixing the problems at the coal-fired plants. This has proven – as expected – unsustainable, and South Africa has run out of diesel. The government has procured another huge shipment, at great cost, which is said to arrive upon our shores any time this week. 

  • Load-shedding across the country has left farmers unable to adequately care for their animals. Systems and equipment used to aid the farmers are offline, creating poor conditions, and leading to the immune-system failure, illness and death of these animals. 

  • Cities use electricity to pump water from the reservoirs, and cannot do this during load-shedding. Johannesburg Water, for instance, has advised residents that the water supply could experience low pressure, or cease entirely, due to the blackouts.

  • To really add insult to injury, chief economists have noted that South Africa’s economy would be at least 10% greater if it were not for Eskom.

  • It has been reported that another Eskom employee strike will take place in April. It has also been reported that there are over 10 000 corrupt employees at the power utility, with Eskom management lacking the spine to deal with them. Eskom is also noted as having an incredibly bloated wage bill, which it has been unable to cull due to fear of union retaliation.

Prepare For A National Blackout

Malfeasance, mismanagement and sheer, unbridled idiocy has brought South Africa to where it is, right now. 17 000MW of Eskom’s 47 000MW installed capacity is unavailable, due to ‘unplanned’ breakdowns. Adding to that, Eskom is also missing 7 100MW due to crisis maintenance which could have been avoided, diesel shortages and the inactivity of the cyclone-battered Cahora-Bassa plant.

We’re not even going to mention the delinquency going on at the unreliable, inconsistent Medupi and Kusile plants, built to the wasteful tune of R400 billion, which are over-budget, behind schedule and an overall disaster. 

So, can we expect, and should we plan for a National Blackout?

According to electricity expert, Chris Yelland – absolutely. 

See, the safety features built into the electricity equipment are there to prevent the catastrophic damage that an overload would cause, and would trigger a blackout in response. According to Yelland:

When demand exceeds supply, what happens is you have overloading of generators, transformers, cables, and switchgear.

The system is overloaded, the equipment begins to trip, and while the supply of electricity decreases, the demand remains the same. This, in turn, places even greater strain on the parts of the grid which are still operational, causing these to overload and trip, and so on and so forth. 

South Africa will be blown out like a candle in the dark. 

You cannot operate an electrical system where demand exceeds supply.

A Black Start

A national blackout would put Eskom in a position where it would have to restart power plants without electricity – commonly referred to as a Black Start.

This could take two to three weeks, during which South Africa will be in complete darkness, with no power at all. 

How a Black Start works is like this:

Power plants will use some of the electricity they generate to operate crucial equipment, such as the conveyor belts that feed the coal into the furnaces. To start this equipment up, and therefore the power plant, you’ll need to use a small diesel generator to start up a larger generator, and then start parts of the plant.

Careful procedures and protocols will have to be followed. We’re in such good hands.

A blackout will inevitably lead to social unrest, looting, pillaging and horror the likes of which a democratic South Africa has never seen before. 

Therefore, the grid has to stay alive. It has to be protected, no matter how idiotic Eskom continues to grow. In a recent briefing, Minister of Public Enterprises and man-with-the-absolute-job-in-the-world, poor Pravin Gordhan, said that the government does not have any answers pertaining to when the load-shedding will end. 

It may never end. 

I know the most important issue for South Africans is how long will this last, and when will you be able to give us certainty that load-shedding will end?
At this point in time, we are still getting a better grasp of the technical problems and other problems that Eskom power stations are confronting.

More to follow.

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