Taking back the power

Our electricity crisis may well be worse than anyone expected.
Candice Jones
By Candice Jones, ITWeb online telecoms editor
Johannesburg, 09 Apr 2008

I am as frustrated as the next person when it comes to rolling blackouts and all the chaos that generally comes along with it. Taking hours to get to work, the increased use of petrol, which isn't exactly affordable anymore, not to mention the clear antagonism and despondency in the people I meet these days.

I have also been particularly vocal about having Eskom and responsible government parties' heads roll, or take some sort of responsibility.

There is an Eskom advert on one of my favourite radio stations at the moment saying something along the lines of: "Consumers have not saved the recommended 10% power so we are forced to load-shed." This sets me on edge. Is Eskom really blaming me for its mistakes?

But last night, chatting with a source close to SA's mining operations, I really had to shift perspective. Trouble is coming and it's going to send SA back to something reminiscent of the Stone Age.

Dark days ahead

Apparently, the mines are preparing for something worse than we as consumers could ever dream about. They are worried there may be a national electricity distribution grid blackout, something akin to the US disaster in 2003.

If that happens, the entire country could be without electricity for up to two weeks. The idea is terrifying, as four hours a day twice a week seems inconvenient enough, but at least you can go out to eat dinner, or drive to your mother's house to get washing done.

The implications of having a national blackout for two weeks are enormous. No electricity to power petrol pumps, so people will not be driving anywhere. No electricity to power battery chargers or laptops, so communication with anyone outside your own home will be impossible.

No food can be cooked or kept over any given period and shops will lose thousands of rands worth of perishable goods. On the upside, Koo beans will make a killing; that is, of course, if anyone can organise cash without ATMs or point-of-sale devices.

Our entire mining production will come to a standstill. The implications of that has already been seen when Eskom shut down the mines in our last set of rolling blackouts. According to my source, the utility shut them down to prevent a grid-wide blackout.

So not only are the mines preparing, they are expecting it to happen, and not in the too distant future. Essentially, they are pulling together as much information as possible to ensure that if the worst happens, mine staff will be safe, not to mention, above ground.

So why two weeks?

Trouble is coming and it's going to send SA back to something reminiscent of the Stone Age.

Candice Jones, journalist, ITWeb

Something we have heard from several specialists is that it takes a power station to start a power station. SA's hydroelectric station will have to restart the entire system if it shuts down and that will take around two weeks to get the stations into a rolling start-up effect: one power station starting another until they are all up and running.

But, while that happens, the demand has to stay below a certain threshold. Power can't easily be stored over long periods, and is usually used seconds after it's produced. Any demand on the grid must be matched by supply. An overload could cause the entire system to trip. This is exactly what happened in the US in 2003 and what may well happen in SA, and soon.

I asked my source if there was anything that could be done to prevent this and his response was: "Yes, if consumers pull together and actually actively save power, we will be ok."

So that's the perspective part of this story. I am angry that Eskom messed things up, I am angry that we are being blamed, but maybe we should be. We now have no choice. If we want to prevent the neo Stone Age, we will have to pull together.

Driving around several suburbs made me realise that people are not getting just how dire the situation is. Rows of garden lights left on all night - I am sure your garden looks just as lovely in your dreams. Car dealerships with lights on in the showroom at 11 at night - I promise I won't be buying a car at that time.

Essentially there are a million things we could be doing to right the wrongs of Eskom and government, and I am now convinced that we should. Let's look at it as the Samaritan action of the year: helping someone we don't know out of a big mess, because in the end the alternative is worse.