THE POWER BE­HIND THE switch

The next time you com­plain your job is the tough­est in South Africa, spare a thought for the woman who must de­cide when the lights stay on – and when they go out. Yolandi Groe­newald meets the coun­try’s most ‘pow­er­ful’ woman

CityPress - - News -

At 5am on Thurs­day, March 6, a grim, bleary-eyed group of men and women gath­ered in a room in Ger­mis­ton, east of Joburg. They had known for a few days that the coun­try’s power grid was in trou­ble, but in the early hours of that morn­ing, another ma­chine blew. Al’louise van Deven­ter and her team gath­ered at Eskom’s Na­tional Con­trol Cen­tre on Joburg’s East Rand – and, at 7.55am, af­ter nearly three hours of meet­ings, de­cided to start load shed­ding.

At 8am, the first switches were flipped and the dark­ness spread across the coun­try.

Van Deven­ter is Eskom’s Na­tional Con­trol Cen­tre man­ager – a calm woman with nerves of steel who must ul­ti­mately de­cide when the coun­try’s power load needs to be shed.

She works with a team of tech­ni­cians and en­gi­neers who mon­i­tor the power grid from the con­trol cen­tre, a high-tech space filled with screens, com­put­ers, but­tons and levers.

Since 2008, South Africa’s power sup­ply has been skat­ing on thin ice and will be con­strained at least un­til the de­layed Medupi coal-pow­ered sta­tion comes on­line next year.

This means the tech­ni­cians in the nerve cen­tre must watch ev­ery power sta­tion with ea­gle eyes so they are al­ways a step ahead of a de­vel­op­ing cri­sis.

On March 6, Van Deven­ter and her team jumped straight to the most se­vere load shed­ding state, stage 3, for 14 hours to sta­bilise the grid.

Load shed­ding has been rare – but ev­ery time it hap­pens, the state-owned power util­ity’s rep­u­ta­tion and pop­u­lar­ity dips. But Van Deven­ter isn’t in­ter­ested in win­ning pop­u­lar­ity con­tests.

“If we don’t ini­ti­ate load shed­ding when it is needed, we will lose the whole coun­try,” she says dur­ing a me­dia visit to the con­trol cen­tre.

“South Africa will be with­out elec­tric­ity for at least two weeks – and two weeks is the best-case sce­nario.”

If you imag­ine that braai­ing your meals for two weeks or not be­ing able to blow-dry your hair is just a mild in­con­ve­nience, Van Deven­ter is quick to ruin your mood.

“The coun­try will shut down. There will be no cell­phone sig­nals, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­dus­try will shut down, traf­fic will grind to a halt and sew­er­age sys­tems will be­come flooded be­cause there is no elec­tric­ity for pumps,” she says.

“That is the con­se­quence of not load shed­ding when you have to.”

Black­outs aren’t a uniquely South African prob­lem. In 2003, parts of Man­hat­tan in New York were with­out power for two weeks. There, a neigh­bour­ing state’s grid was used to help the city kick-start its own sup­ply.

South Africa doesn’t have that lux­ury. Our neigh­bours’ grids aren’t pow­er­ful enough to help, so Eskom will be on its own in a cri­sis.

Van Deven­ter and her team know what they will have to do: the grid will be started slowly with a gen­er­a­tor, some­thing called a black-start unit kept in the heart of KwaZulu-Natal.

If all goes smoothly, the power will be fully re­stored in two weeks. If any­thing goes wrong, the whole process will have to start over.

Steve Lennon, Eskom group ex­ec­u­tive for sus­tain­abil­ity, says the na­tional con­trol cen­tre’s em­ploy­ees are un­der strict in­struc­tions to load-shed when needed – no mat­ter who tells them oth­er­wise.

The cen­tre has been de­fined as a na­tional key point: jour­nal­ists had to leave their cell­phones and cam­eras be­hind and be screened twice for any hid­den tech­nol­ogy be­fore en­ter­ing the room.

A huge screen fea­tur­ing mul­ti­ple boxes lights up the room, al­low­ing em­ploy­ees to mon­i­tor the state of power sup­ply na­tion­wide, in real time.

Another box shows South Africa’s net­work of trans­mis­sion lines and warns tech­ni­cians about a fire un­der the lines or a fault on the grid.

A crit­i­cal box dis­plays the pro­jected power needed for the day, pred­i­cated on con­sumers’ his­tor­i­cal be­hav­iour and what will be avail­able that day.

Weather plays a big role in the pre­dic­tions. When the tem­per­a­ture plum­mets, even by a de­gree or two, South Africans be­come more power hun­gry.

Van Deven­ter and her team are guided by a de­fin­i­tive set of rules about when to im­ple­ment load shed­ding, mak­ing it less of a sub­jec­tive de­ci­sion. “We have very spe­cific pa­ram­e­ters.” Each tech­ni­cian has his or her own work sta­tion to per­son­ally mon­i­tor what­ever re­spon­si­bil­ity they’ve been as­signed.

Some must check the grid’s fre­quency – it is not al­lowed to drop un­der 50Hz – and oth­ers check that all is well with the trans­mis­sion lines.

Data is up­dated ev­ery four sec­onds and alarm bells sound when there is a prob­lem.

Six en­gi­neers and tech­ni­cians work 12-hour shifts, five times a week.

The work at the na­tional con­trol cen­tre is so crit­i­cal that em­ploy­ees can­not sim­ply slip away for a bath­room break – they have to ask some­one to watch their con­trols for the five min­utes.

The Ger­mis­ton cen­tre also has a top-se­cret twin that can take over its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties if it is com­pro­mised. The lo­ca­tion of the twin is a state se­cret.

Most of the tech­ni­cians and en­gi­neers in the con­trol cen­tre have been with Eskom for more than 30 years and have the nec­es­sary ex­pe­ri­ence to be calm and col­lected in a cri­sis, she ex­plains.

But they are in­tro­duc­ing new em­ploy­ees, care­fully screen­ing each can­di­date to check their stress re­ac­tions.

“We look at em­ploy­ees when they check in and we make sure they are con­nected to the earth,” says Van Deven­ter.

“This is not a job for ex­citable peo­ple.”

PHOTO: THE­UNS KRUGER

FIN­GER ON THE PULSE Eskom Na­tional Con­trol Cen­tre man­ager Al’louise van

Deven­ter

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