Days of rolling blackouts this week have blighted South African society and business, and they face an increasing number of outages in years to come. But the alternative, a grid collapse, could be catastrophic.
Bordered by tiny, war-scarred or impoverished states such as Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Africa‘s most advanced economy cannot rely on help to power its 42,000 MW electricity network and has nobody to turn to if the lights go out.
State power firm Eskom has implemented rolling blackouts for almost a year as its old, deteriorating infrastructure buckles under the strain. They are a last-resort measure to avoid total failure of the power system.
Such a collapse would bring the country to its knees within days. After their back-up diesel generators run out, everything from hospitals to water suppliers and mobile phone firms could cease to function, while law and order could break down.
Eskom has suffered from years of underfunding and investment in new plants has not kept up with demand. It has warned South Africans face rolling blackouts for several years to come.
As yet no plans for a long-term solution have been announced. President Jacob Zuma’s government is working on a financing plan for the sector and details are expected to be outlined when the finance minister presents the budget next month.
Rolling blackouts – when electricity is shut off to specific areas at certain times to conserve capacity – became more frequent in November after a major power-generating silo collapsed. There have been three days of power cuts this week alone.
Many restaurants, shops and offices simply shut when they hit – a big blow to an economy whose growth averaged 5 percent in the five years before a 2009 recession, but has languished below 2 percent since, and a deterrent to foreign investment.
Crime is already a major concern for most South Africans and with no power going to electric fences or security gates and streets pitch black at night, criminals have new opportunities in a nation with 25 percent unemployment and massive inequality.
Such effects can be devastating – but they still pale in comparison with the consequences of a grid collapse.
The chaos would not be short-lived.
Eskom, which stresses that a complete shutdown is extremely unlikely, nonetheless has emergency plans in place to resume power delivery – known as a “black start” – but warns it would take weeks.
“In our projections, it is roughly a two-to-four week period to restart the whole country,” Al’Louise van Deventer, Eskom’s national control manager, told Reuters at the utility’s nerve centre near Johannesburg.
Behind her in the bowels of the ultra-secure building stand banks of screens and computer terminals, staffed round-the-clock in an operation similar to NASA’s mission control.
In such an emergency scenario, Zuma and his cabinet would be taken to a secret location and soldiers would be deployed at key sites such as the central bank and South African Broadcasting Corporation HQ, a government source said.
“The government has command centres that will be activated to make sure we can maintain law and order,” said another government source. “The military will be deployed so broadcast and communication is secure.”
Zuma’s office declined to comment.
After a power supply crunch and spate of blackouts in 2008, many South African businesses and a few homes have back-up generators, but over time they will run out of fuel – as will the generators at fuel stations, bringing transport to a halt.
“Those who have diesel generators will only be able to run them for as long as fuel reserves last, as petrol and diesel pumps work off electricity. Then, people will be in trouble,” van Deventer said.
Eskom, which supplies almost all the country’s electricity, has not put a figure on how much investment it would need to upgrade infrastructure to the level needed to avoid blackouts.
Zuma’s government in October said it would inject 20 billion rand ($1.7 billion) to boost its coffers and convert its existing 60 billion rand subordinated loan to state-owned equity.
At their worst, rolling blackouts or “load-shedding” have never taken out more than 3,000 MW of demand, roughly 10 percent of consumption.
However, many big companies are not taking their chances.
Gold and platinum mining companies say they have emergency power units to get men above ground, but are unable to generate the vast amounts of electricity needed to operate what are some of the deepest mines in the world, at up 4 km (2.5 miles).
MTN, Africa‘s biggest mobile phone firm, has a private 2 MW power plant at its Johannesburg headquarters with 1.5 million litres of diesel reserves – enough, its says, to keep its core operations going for a month.
“If you don’t have diesel reserves then you are in big trouble,” said Willem Webber, MTN’s “core implementation manager” who is working on plans to generate up to 24 MW for the firm’s own needs and possible feeding back into the grid.
“Imagine a company like MTN down for a month.”