Total blackout

What are our plans should there be total blackout asks the Witness?

Total blackout in developed countries is highly unlikely, but it has happened. In 2003, Italy experienced a country wide power outage when a tree fell across a main powerline bringing energy from a Swiss hydroelectric power station.

This page was last updated by Bernard Preston on 29th August, 2019.

By Bernard Preston

Within four seconds two further power lines from France and Italy failed due to the sudden increase in demand; moments later the whole of Italy was in darkness. The cascading effect even caused loss of electricity in parts of Switzerland.

30,000 people were stranded on trains overnight; all flights were cancelled.

Whilst such a scenario is most uncommon in a sophisticated economy, it has happened numerous times in Africa; and it was threatening South Africa daily until the economy shrunk and demand dropped.

Twice in December, 2015, Zambia suffered total blackout due to inadequate long term planning, and the drought which dropped the level of water on Kariba dam.

Theft of electricity, lack of maintenance, poor control over coal supplies, and the refusal of the Mbeki government to sanction new power stations, has brought utility company Eskom to its knees.

With its stock reduced to junk status by international finance houses, Eskom faces a bleak future; its chairman has resigned.

Overt government policy has resulted in the termination of the contracts of the great majority of white engineers and technicians, and near collapse of management.

International standards require a 12 to 15 percent reserve of power and South Africa has none; rolling blackouts were a daily reality for many people in 2015 and have continued on a regular basis; business and industry are in turmoil with unplanned outages causing havoc; and so it continues to happen four years later.

Coal stocks at three power stations will last only ten days currently in February, 2019, instead of the mandatory six weeks.

It took Italy two days to restore power completely but in South Africa, if Eskom suddenly loses control of the grid, it is estimated that it would take several weeks to get the lights back on.

Within five days, with the pumps lying idle, there would also be a widespread water shortage too.

Another sudden loss of a major turbine, as happened in 2014 when a vital coal silo collapsed, could easily plunge South Africa into total blackout.

Total blackout caused by a coal silo collapsing.

The huge silo, seconds before it collapsed.

Total Blackout

Total blackout and regular loss of power is extremely frustrating but there is an alternative.

It came close in 2013 when unseasonal heavy rain caught Eskom short; lack of foresight meant a grave shortage of dry coal and South Africa was for the first time brought to the brink.

The lack of any surplus means that for several years South Africans have been faced with the nightmare of a total blackout. When a technician inadvertently, or deliberately dropped a heavy bolt into a turbine at the nuclear power station Koeberg, it also nearly caused a catastrophe.

Faced with almost daily blackouts, businesses and private homes have resorted to expensive generators; every new retrogressive development includes an alternate source of power, fueled by diesel or petrol.

Crime too has soared as thieves have welcomed the rolling blackouts for their nefarious activities.

The question is whether alternate forms of energy such as wind and solar could provide a solution; the answer is an emphatic yes. One of the huge problems faced by Eskom is that in the past during periods of surplus they have been able to pump water to holding dams high in the mountains, able to be released again through turbines when demand soars in the evening.

Now there are rarely times when they have enough energy for such pump stations.

At a national level, large alternative energy farms provide power during the day to supply such generators. And unlike huge coal and nuclear utilities which take decades of planning and erection, a solar station can be built in less than a year.

At a business level, firms that require energy mostly in the day can easily change over to solar. Those requiring power at night would be faced with large and very expensive banks of batteries.

Even so, battery technology is growing in leaps and bounds and some South African companies are changing over to the revolutionary Redflow storage system. 

Most of the energy for air-conditioning and refrigeration is required during the heat of the day; efficient freezers require little power at night.

For the private home, a solar powered generator is certainly a viable option. Right now I am typing on a computer powered by the sun.

Grid Tied or not?

There are four options for a home solar generator if you are considering whether to be grid tied or not:

  1. Off the grid with a stand alone solar generator and batteries.
  2. Grid tied with a solar generator and no batteries; surplus power during the day is pumped back into the grid. At night grid electricity is used.
  3. Grid tied with a solar generator and batteries; excess power is steered first to storage and, when they are fully charged, only then is the surplus sent back to utility.
  4. Stand alone solar generator and batteries. Not grid tied but Eskom is available when the stored energy is low, or the weather inclement.

All four have their merits. Option 3 is the best but it's also the most expensive by at least 50 percent; but that money is slowly recouped as one pumps any surplus back into grid.

Option 2 is probably the common model being used currently mainly because it's the cheapest. It is quite useless in the event of a total blackout as, without the pressure of the utility, you are unable to utilise your own solar generator. On a bright sunny day you would be without power; read more at grid tied residential solar power.

Option 1 requires a very large bank of batteries, or some deprivation in the event of inclement weather lasting more than a day or two. But it's the very best option in the event of a total blackout. Currently we are looking to upgrade to lithium which is much less expensive, and has better charge parameters.

Option 4 is the one I have. A medium sized bank of batteries which is quite adequate in the event of a one day rain. It's also perfect for the total blackout situation; but you are unable to recoup any costs from Eskom. Surplus power might be lost during the day. You also avoid any dirty power being fed into your system from the utility.

Solar powered generator

Solar powered generators are not cheap; here's my setup. It's a good option in the event of a total blackout.

  • 10kW Microcare inverter
  • 2 x 60A Microcare MPPT
  • Eight 200AH lead crystal batteries.
  • 3.2kW PV panels. Now 5.1kW with 915 watts of west facing PVs, and three mobile solar carts.
  • Changeover switch
  • Base load 1500W
  • Max load 10kW

Cost R200,000 fully installed by myself.

Update: I am about to install 910W of PVs that are west facing; they will provide less power during the day, since they are not north oriented, when we have sufficient energy, anyway, but start to contribute in theory after noon, and in particular late during the day when the cooks are busy.

In practice, they actually start making a significant contribution by 10am. Three west facing solar panels are now a reality.

West facing PV panels, 3 x 310W, will give the batteries a full charge for the night should there be total blackout.

What will it do?

Just what will it do, and how much power will one need to draw from the grid during inclement weather and at night?

We have used 1700kwh of mains power in three and half years. At the beginning of that period I had fewer panels, a 2kVA inverter and two batteries.

Now, with the above hardware we

  • Use the electric oven (3kw) on sunny days.
  • Bake bread daily using a breadmaker.
  • Use the 3kW electric lawnmower.
  • All lights, computers and TV. 
  • Reservoir pump.
  • Pool pump and chlorinator for 8 hours per day. 250kWh per month.
  • Three fridges and vacuum cleaner, and all my substantial carpentry tools; thicknesser, lathe, saws, etc.

It does mean some change of habits and a little inconvenience; if it's a cloudy day, one might not bake, or mow the grass unless it is important.

Payback time

The guesstimate is about 10-15 years. More important is that during rolling blackouts and the eventuality of a total blackout we do have power.

Also, inverters produce clean electricity with no surges and brown outs. It acts as a perfect UPS. The press is full of reports of burned out computers, microwaves and TVs and even some of the larger appliances. Adding those costs to the payback time and one is probably looking at 8-10 years.

'I have faced a huge financial setback with my gate motor, alarm system and three TVs damaged by load shedding.'


Do it again?

Would I do it again? Yes, I certainly would but I would do several things differently.

  • Go big as you can afford from the start. You will want more and the solar powered generator upgrade was unnecessarily expensive. 
  • I wouldn't put the PV panels on my roof if I could possibly help it. Residential solar panels pitch tells you why. In fact because of large trees I had no option.
  • I would use only the best change over switch available. A cheaper one failed within a year.  In fact purchase only premium equipment; then it hurts only once!
  • I would use the uniformly largest PV panels available. It's the same amount of work to install a 90W panel as a 330W panel; mind you, an expert tells me that the 280W panels have the best characteristics. And whilst one can use different size panels, it means using a stud diode and the MPPT may not function optimally. Whilst you don't have to know how diodes work, it certainly does help. 
  • I would do more research on batteries. Our 12V lead crystal batteries are fantastic, but very expensive; is there another option? Redflow's new Z batteries look like an exciting new innervation. We are looking at lithium too.

How diodes work

How diodes work is really only for bofs; you don't have to know how your computer works in order to use it. But a few things are necessary to understand them. It's the same with total blackout; the more knowledge you have, the better the system you'll build. In these pages I share many of the pitfalls that have challenged me.

A diode allows current to flow in one direction only, preventing a PV panel with a higher voltage from domineering another smaller one.

» » Total blackout

Further upgrades

A recent power surge from 220V to 431V caused much damage.

Further upgrades are in the planning in the light of the shocking surge in voltage recently, destroying much private and municipal property. Going off the grid is again being contemplated.

Bernard Preston

Although Bernard Preston is a physics major, that was a long time ago, before he turned to giving chiropractic care; in short some forty years. Meaning that anybody who is able with his or her hands, and willing to talk and listen to people, and do some Google study could take on a project like this. Total blackout could happen in any place, whether due to incompetence, or massive climate change. 

The giant new step forward since he built his solar generator is having each and every tile on the roof a solar panel; one should certainly consider that today before building a new solar generator.

“So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less and—by the way—generates electricity?” Musk said. “Why would you get anything else?”

So why build a conventional "dumb" roof?

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56 Groenekloof Rd,

Hilton, KZN

South Africa