By Mbangwa Xaba

As far back as 2019, whispers in the business world hinted at the possibility of a national grid meltdown. Yet, in the halls of power, those tasked with safeguarding our energy infrastructure chose to turn a blind eye, brushing off the warnings as mere conjecture.

Similar to the Bester prison breakout, it took a while for this news to hit the big time. It was not until earlier this year when Eskom’s ex-CEO, André DeRuyter, sent shivers down the spines of government officials with his ominous prediction that the grid could crumble.

A warning was sounded well before the calamitous and ill-advised mandates enshrined in the Energy State of Disaster (SOD), which the powers-that-be have now sheepishly rescinded following strong opposition from various sectors.

The regulations introduced by Ramaphosa’s administration had the objective of covertly exempting ministers and other state cronies from power cuts. For legitimacy, they included “essential infrastructure such as medical facilities and water treatment facilities”.

De Ruyter criticised the government’s foolish proposals, pointing out that they would lead to a complete failure of the power grid. He explained that there would be very little remaining demand to be reduced, which would create a clear danger of a blackout or collapse of the grid.

“Very little load would be left to be shed to reduce demand and this presents a manifest risk of grid collapse or blackout,” he said.

It is widely known that the state and governing party hurled every possible insult at De Ruyter, giving him no relief.

Over a week ago, Gwede Mantashe, who is the Minister of Energy and Minerals, made a funny remark to ease concerns about the prospective grid crisis. This statement caught my interest and made me laugh uncontrollably.

“The national grid will not collapse because there is a grid that is stable. We need to invest in more grid capacity, that’s all. So, there will be no grid collapse. But for any business institution, it is always advisable to anticipate a crisis. There is what is called “worst case scenario” in scenario planning,” blurted Mantashe.

It appears that the government is not too keen on the idea of scenario planning and instead, they want us to blindly trust their questionable decision-making skills. It’s like saying you don’t need insurance because you’re a careful driver or that you don’t need home insurance because you have top-notch security measures in place. It’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?

As we grapple with the perplexing notion of placing our trust in a government that has subjected us to the scourge of load shedding, despite being forewarned a decade prior, I couldn’t help but muse with you, my esteemed reader, on the potential ramifications of a grid collapse, should we ever reach that point.

To kick things off, we are talking about a catastrophic event of epic proportions.

As the South African business community delved into the potentiality of a grid meltdown in 2019, the BBC took a deep dive into the global effects of electricity on humanity, producing a captivating documentary feature.

In the feature, Melissa Lott, a research fellow at the Centre on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, emphasised the awe-inspiring engineering and operational prowess of power grids: “Our national power grids are tremendous feats of engineering and operations that have supported rapid economic growth around the world, and that more investment is needed if electric power grids are going to keep up with rapid technology shifts and increasingly extreme weather events.”

According to Melissa, the ramifications of a grid collapse are far-reaching and can have a profound effect on both enterprises and individuals alike.

“It means more to people than just as a technology. It is an infrastructure that runs our way of life, therefore needs to be protected and improved constantly so that it can be more resilient against physical threats like natural disasters or attacks.

“In the summer of 2012, blackouts in India cut power to more than 600 million people over two days. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria crippled infrastructure across the island, leaving people in the dark and triggering a humanitarian crisis. In 2018, an earthquake on Japan’s Hokkaido island left more than 5 million people without power.  In order to keep these events from becoming more common and to minimize their impact, we need to invest in our grids.”

She continued by stating that it was challenging and costly to implement strategies to combat all of these possible risks. Specifically, she was discussing the search for methods to predict potential power outages and how individuals can utilize artificial intelligence to tackle this intricate issue.

Melissa was not referring to the common issues of poor management and widespread corruption that have been pinpointed as the primary causes for the potential failure of the South African power system. Instead, she was discussing the genuine difficulty of overseeing a national power grid.

Should we opt to ignore the impending danger as suggested by Minister Mantashe, we shall
inevitably face a grid failure.

Eskom has been taking measures to prevent a catastrophic system failure by implementing
rotational power cuts and reducing supply to industrial customers. Nevertheless, if there were
to be an unexpected breakdown of generation units or widespread transmission faults, the
electricity frequency on the grid could plummet below the minimum required levels, leading
to a complete shutdown of the system. This was revealed by Gav Hurford, Eskom’s national
control manager, in 2021.

If this occurs, what are the potential outcomes?

The situation is uncertain and contingent on Eskom’s ability to fix the grid within 12 hours. If they can, the crisis will be minimal, but if not, it will escalate within 12 to 24 hours. The first thing to go will be communication, including cell phones, computers, and TV. The only possible source of information may be the radio in our cars.

This will significantly impede the state’s capacity to disseminate information regarding interventions and strategies aimed at alleviating the crisis, safeguarding public infrastructure, and upholding social stability.

In the event of significant emergencies, there is a likelihood of widespread looting and an increase in criminal activity. Additionally, there may be a shortage of food. The state’s capacity to address emergencies is expected to diminish due to a lack of communication resources for crisis management and the inability to guarantee public safety.

The compromise of critical infrastructure could potentially impede the state’s capacity to effectively deploy military forces, ensure adequate security measures, establish detention centers for mass arrests, provide healthcare services, and respond to other emergencies.

Then a major healthcare crisis will ensue. The onset of water scarcity is likely to result in a range of adverse consequences, including a heightened risk of mortality both within healthcare facilities and among the general population. The initial victims of a power outage or disruption in refrigeration would likely include individuals who rely on refrigerated medication or electrically-powered medical devices, such as ventilators or dialysis machines.

During the initial stages, people might have to search for food from the remaining supplies in
their pantries and engage in candlelit conversations. However, after the first two days, the
circumstances will worsen significantly.

If the situation described occurs, it will be necessary to leave one’s home to obtain food and water because the supplies in the household pantry reserves are likely to have depleted and the tap will be dry.

If there is a severe scenario, such as a prolonged disruption in waste management services, sewage systems may become overwhelmed, leading to potential public health hazards as garbage accumulates in urban areas.

When there is a grid collapse, it is anticipated that only factories utilising off-grid power sources or minimal power supply from alternative energy sources such as solar or wind will be operational. In the absence of a functioning grid, transportation options will be severely limited.

Personal vehicles will be rendered useless as fuel stations will require electricity to pump fuel. Similarly, public transportation services such as trains, buses, taxis, and airlines will be unable to operate without access to a reliable power source.

Everything else will just be dead. It is at this point that you truly get a sense of how complex and interconnected our systems of infrastructure are because there’s almost nothing that can frustrate the process of restoring power more than a lack of power itself.

Before powering up the country, it would be necessary to restart each power station.

Power stations typically require an electrical supply to initiate operations, similar to how a car requires a battery to power its ignition. With a complete electricity blackout, there is no centrally connected power available on a large scale to reboot the system. So, it has to be rebooted from scratch. The procedure is called “Black Start”.

The way Black Start works is relatively simple. Smaller power sources are used to start larger ones, scaling up until the entire country is powered up again. Some power stations simply do not have the capability to serve as the starting point for a system reboot.

At this point, you will realise that electricity is not a mere luxury, but an absolute necessity for modern life. This issue is too important to be entrusted solely to the hands of incompetent and birdbrained government apparatchiks.

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