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Experts shed light on ‘unlikely’ Eskom blackout

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Cooling towers at a coal-based power station owned by state power utility Eskom in Duhva, South Africa, February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Experts and industry leaders agree that Eskom – and by extension the country – is not likely to incur a total grid collapse and blackout despite current electricity generation challenges.

This came out during a webinar hosted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) on the myths and facts about electricity grid stability on Wednesday.

Eskom’s General Manger System Operator Isabel Fick emphasised that although South Africa does have a capacity generation problem, throughout global examples, this has not caused system blackouts.

“The probability of a national blackout is extremely low. A number of other areas across the world…did have national blackouts. Nowhere will you see that [these] were because of a lack of capacity that caused a national blackout.

“In all those cases it was a cascading event starting in the transmission space,” she said.

Fick said South Africa has only had regional blackouts before and load shedding had no role in both.

“We have never had a national blackout in South Africa. We have had two regional ones before. One was an event where we had a transfer limit issue to the Western Cape and the other was a snow event in KwaZulu-Natal.

“In those cases we had to deal with a regional blackout and in the case of the Western Cape, we started load shedding in 2006 which was the basis of the current load shedding regime that we are using in South Africa,” she said.

The system operator assured South Africans that Eskom has in place at least six “defensive barriers” that can prevent any blackout including a reserve margin of 2200MW available at any time.

“Effectively each of these…represents a barrier in place that we can even get to a national blackout. It starts from the building and design phase of our equipment, how we operate our equipment and also the emergency response that we have. All of those have to essentially fail before we get to a national blackout.

“Thereafter we have to restore, should [that] ever happen. Even in that case we have a number of plans in place, very flexible plans because it will depend on exactly what state the network is in. If we do have networks on islanding, that will be the fastest route and our estimation is between six and 14 days [for restoration] should we ever have a national blackout,” she explained.

She said the network is monitored on a second by second basis that will ensure that any event is immediately dealt with.

Expert consensus

During the webinar, Fellow of the South Africa Institute of Electrical Engineers Professor Jan de Kock concurred with Fick and added that Eskom staff are improving the system daily.

“It’s fair to say that it’s highly unlikely that we’ll have a total grid collapse in South Africa. We can’t say it will never happen but it’s really unlikely.

“Our grid at this stage is well managed and we have excellent people investigating causes of small disturbances, multiple unit trips and in the process we’re actually improving grid performance nearly on a daily basis,” he said.

Chairman of the Management Committee National Rationalised Specifications (NRS) Association of South Africa, Vally Padayachee emphasised that as a key stakeholder, the association “will not allow” any compromise of the system to the point of allowing a blackout.

The NRS SA is a powerful organisation with membership including the eight metro municipalities, Eskom,  theNational Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA), and the Association of Municipal Electricity Utilities of Southern Africa.

“We are nowhere near a total grid collapse. [The association’s] mandate is to protect the national electricity grid of South Africa. We will not hesitate to exercise this mandate at a moment’s notice, especially during a power system emergency, without fear or favour to prevent the national grid from going to a blackout situation…a total grid collapse.

“We want to give the public and other key stakeholders the assurance that without any fear or favour, we will not compromise the integrity of the grid in support of the system operator. We will not compromise the grid,” he said.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) senior researcher and electrical engineer, Monique le Roux explained that the institution and Eskom have been working closely together to ensure that the system is continuously as stable as possible.

“Studies are going on in the background with Eskom leading this and we are supporting them where we research projects together. The aim with this is to give people comfort that there are studies that are ongoing that looks at the system on an ongoing basis to determine if the safety margins are in place, if the system can be run ably and if mitigation is necessary,” she said.

Le Roux added that Eskom is using a power system analysis software that she says is a “very powerful tool” used throughout the world to keep the lights on safely. – SAnews

Eskom warns of possible load shedding

Eskom warns of possible load shedding



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