Fears of a total grid collapse in South Africa have been making the rounds, however, energy experts believe that only a perfect storm could lead to a nationwide blackout.

The recent fears of a nationwide blackout had an adverse effect on the rand this week – crossing R19 to the dollar.

ETM analytics said that misleading headlines had sparked a market rout by giving “the impression that [Eskom] was losing control of the grid”.

However, as reported by TimesLive, a former senior manager at Eskom’s transmission department, Hein Vosloo, said that a complete collapse could only occur under unexpected circumstances.

Vosloo said that a grid collapse could only occur if Eskom lost several power lines at once or if all the local power stations went down simultaneously.

“That means the diesel power stations in the Cape fail, as well as the hydro supply from Cahora Bassa in Mozambique and both Koeberg units. The dams at our pump stations must be empty,” he said.

“If this perfect storm happens, we will have a blackout and repairing it [quickly] would be virtually impossible because we won’t have electricity to get the system up and running again. That can cause weeks of blackout.”

North-West University professor Jan de Kock also noted that a total collapse could only occur under an extreme set of events, with the closest South Africa has ever been to a nationwide blackout occurring in 1974.

“There are on average six units at every power station. We would have to lose effectively eight units of at least 600MW each at the same time or in rapid succession,” de Cock said.

However, he said that a total grid collapse would not necessarily occur if this happened.

“A lot of technical and system improvements have been made since 1974. There have been several occasions when we had multiple units failing, but the grid survived all of them,” De Kock said.

Government’s fault

Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto said that fear amongst investors that South Africa is set to suffer a grid collapse is due to the government’s failure to communicate with the public.

Although he also said that a total grid collapse has only a minute chance of occurring, he added that the government and Eskom had not helped themselves by disregarding fears of a total grid collapse too much in the past and not concentrating on planning.

Despite several meetings between government and stakeholders, Attard Montalto said that South Africa has not introduced the crisis planning that a country in this kind of situation should.

“Some really serious wargaming is required for this. The food sector is somewhat ahead of the curve, with the banking sector at the margin – but this is the issue that keeps me up at night. There has not been enough planning for this low-probability event,” he said.

“I still think people underestimate the impact this will have – the overestimating the probability. We need to be quite careful, there is an extreme tail risk. There are many things Eskom and the operator can do beyond load shedding…but there’s an extreme tail risk if things go wrong and they lose control of the grid.”

In addition, there has been extremely limited communication on the types of blackouts South Africa could experience – from a momentary blackout that Eskom could deal with in a short timeframe to a nationwide blackout.

A nationwide blackout is far less likely than a momentary blackout, but there has still been no contingency plan put in place for either.

“There’s an idea that there’s a standard way this would happen, and that’s not helpful in the public discourse. Again, the lack of information has not helped, hence a degree of panic has started to set in.”

Fanele Mondi, CEO of the Energy Intensive Users Group, said that South African citizens should prepare for a grid collapse despite it being implausible.

“Even if we don’t expect a national collapse of the grid, I would still urge citizens to have backup plans in place,” Mondi said.

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