The Dark Side of Energy Dependence: Imagining Life without SA’s Electricity Grid

As South Africa continues to experience record power outages, businesses are increasingly preparing for the potential collapse of the country’s electricity grid, despite government assurances that such an event will not occur. Mining and telecommunications companies, retailers, and private hospitals are investing millions in batteries, solar panels, and generators to safeguard their operations as the electricity supply from state utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. grows increasingly unreliable.

More than half of Eskom’s generation capacity has been regularly unavailable, leading to blackouts of up to 12 hours a day. While a total grid collapse is unlikely, Ralph Mupita, CEO of MTN Group Ltd., has said that businesses must plan for that possibility.

In the event of a collapse, an unanticipated breakdown of generation units or wide-scale transmission faults could cause the electricity frequency on the grid to drop below the required minimum levels, overwhelming the system and causing it to shut down entirely. The fallout could last from days to weeks and lead to looting, vandalism, and public unrest.

Disruptions to water supplies and sewage systems could become more prolonged and widespread. Fuel shortages would also have a knock-on effect on transport and industry, as well as on hospitals, laboratories, and morgues that rely on backup generators. Fuel stocks could become depleted within days, and the backbone of the nation’s telecommunication systems would start to fail within eight hours. Mining operations are also likely to be disrupted, although companies have installed generators that could be used to continue running their ventilation systems and haul workers in some of the world’s deepest shafts back to the surface.

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Eskom has black-start facilities that can operate independently of the grid and could be used to fire up other power stations and gradually restore them to service. However, restoring the entire system could take as long as two weeks.

Eskom has repeatedly stated that it will take the necessary steps to prevent the grid from going down, as a blackout would be a monumental and unprecedented national catastrophe that would threaten many lives. Despite these assurances, businesses are preparing for the worst, as the consequences of a grid collapse could be catastrophic.

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