FNB and Mediclinic preparing for total Eskom grid collapse — even if it is unlikely

Major South African companies like First National Bank (FNB) and Mediclinic are putting plans in place for the unlikely event of total grid collapse in South Africa, MyBroadband has learned from a reliable source.

FNB and Mediclinic are probably not the only companies making sure their business continuity and disaster recovery plans are in place.

Although the probability is low, ignoring it would be irresponsible.

Experts have said that a total blackout remains unlikely — but so were the violent city-wide riots that tore apart Durban and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal in July last year.

Disaster recovery and business continuity plans exist precisely for such black swan events.

Higher stages of Eskom power cuts, and erratic load-shedding announcements, have increased fears that a total grid collapse could be imminent.

However, energy expert Chris Yelland has explained that the stage of load-shedding was not necessarily a direct indication of how close Eskom was to a national blackout.

A blackout happens when the alternating current frequency of Eskom’s power supply varies too much from its designed stable point of 50Hz — or 50 cycles per second.

“The fact that we have a particular stage of load-shedding for some hours or days actually indicates that supply and demand have been brought back into balance by this load-shedding, which will avert any possibility of a national blackout,” Yelland said.

Yelland said the system’s frequency and the frequency’s rate of change — and not the load-shedding stage — indicated the likelihood of a blackout.

“Stage 6 load-shedding has brought the frequency back up to where it should be. It is doing its job,” Yelland stated.

“It is when the frequency is dropping and not returning to 50Hz that you can say if that situation persists, then a national blackout may occur.”

He added that, besides load-shedding, Eskom had other tools at its disposal to bring the supply and demand back into balance under severe circumstances — including automatic load adjustment.

“At the moment, what we are seeing is manual rotating load-shedding,” Yelland said.

“But there is a whole series of automated under-frequency load-shedding, both on a voluntary basis by customers and on an involuntary basis where Eskom’s load-shedding devices start kicking in automatically, and these respond very quickly.”

MyBroadband contacted FNB and Mediclinic for comment, but neither company would officially confirm whether they are preparing for a total grid collapse.

However, Mediclinic Southern Africa did provide details about the steps it has taken to mitigate the impact of Eskom power cuts.

“Mediclinic has comprehensive contingency plans in place for various levels of load-shedding to ensure that the equipment within our facilities is backed up by onsite competent staff, with the necessary plans to ensure availability of diesel 24/7,” a spokesperson told MyBroadband.

“To mitigate power failure, the majority of Mediclinic hospitals are fitted with the necessary infrastructure to ensure patient safety and to enable the facilities to continue with business as usual during power outages.”

It stated that the infrastructure currently in place includes a minimum of two generators, which can be bus-coupled to enable the non-essential generator to back up the essential load if the primary generator fails during a mains power failure.

“In addition to the generators, UPS systems are connected to critical life support systems that require continuous power,” said Mediclinic.

“In the unlikely event of a failure, essential spares are available onsite to affect minor repairs,” it said.

“Furthermore, a network of specialist generator companies are on standby to assist nationally in the event where a repair cannot be affected by the onsite teams.”

Mediclinic said that mobile and rental units are available at short notice to be deployed to a hospital if a repair cannot be affected within a reasonable time.

FNB declined to provide much detail.

“We regularly review our backup power contingency plans to minimise inconvenience to customers in the event of load-shedding and power disruptions,” said Lee-Anne van Zyl, FNB Points of Presence CEO.

Van Zyl said that while many of their points of presence and campuses are equipped with backup power, they also work closely with landlords in areas such as shopping malls to minimise disruptions.

“Furthermore, we encourage our customers to use the FNB app, online, and cellphone banking to access most of our services.”

Black Start

Should Eskom’s grid collapse entirely, South Africa would be without power for 1–3 weeks.

This is because it would need to execute a “black start” — restarting power stations, substations, and other network elements from scratch.

A black start entails using smaller generators, hydroelectric power plants, and similar resources to bring larger power plants back online.

Eskom CEO André De Ruyter has said it would take a week or longer to get the grid back online after a total blackout, which would come at a disastrous cost to the economy.

Yelland and energy analyst Ted Blom have estimated it would take two to three weeks.


Now read: Firing André de Ruyter is a bad idea — Expert

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FNB and Mediclinic preparing for total Eskom grid collapse — even if it is unlikely