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Issue Date: June 2007

In the midst of a power crisis

June 2007
Ray Stride, MD, Global Continuity (SA)

If you are a South African businessperson and have not suffered a power outage that has affected your business, the chances are very high that you will soon be plunged into darkness. Over the next few months and years, you are likely to suffer this situation regularly.

The basic problems started about 10 years ago. A recent report by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) has highlighted many, but not all of the problems related to failure of supply at the plug. I will attempt to briefly and clearly identify the problems that face us:
* South Africa is entering a phase in which the demand for electricity is increasing. This is due to economic growth, the supply of power to new areas and consumers, and the growth of our infrastructure.

* There has been no real growth of generating capacity over the last 10 years, and power consumption has overtaken generating capacity.

* The distribution infrastructure, particularly at municipal level is under maintained, while being expanded. Frequent failures occur at this level.
The effects are that:
* There is not enough electrical power currently to meet peak demand.

* It will be a number of years before supply can exceed demand and a reserve of capacity can be restored.

* The infrastructure will fail with increasing frequency.

* Repairs will take longer to effect, causing extended outages.

* When demand exceeds supply, the power will be turned off by the suppliers and distributors. This process known as 'load-shedding' is already in place and being used frequently.

* Load shedding may affect certain areas for many hours at a time.

* All of these effects are going to get worse, before they get better.
How is this affecting business?
The simple answer is badly. Electricity is the lifeblood of any business. Production equipment, lighting, heating, refrigeration, computers and telecommunications will not function without power. A short while ago we were treated to a blackout in the Johannesburg suburb of Bedfordview, which lasted for more than three days. Bedfordview is a typical city suburb having a mix of residential properties, businesses, telecommunications and transport infrastructure. These are some of the effects of the situation which were experienced:
* Staff did not have power, lighting or hot water at home.

* Offices did not have lighting.

* Offices did not have airconditioning.

* Some of the office blocks had no functioning lifts (some are high-rise).

* Alarms failed, compromising security.

* Traffic lights were out of order, causing traffic congestion.

* Shopping malls had no lighting and had to close.

* Restaurants were unable to prepare food. Turnover losses were substantial.

* Many shops had to close for the duration of the outage. Turnover losses were huge.

* After one or two days some of the Telkom infrastructure started to fail as battery back-up systems ran out of charge. This affected one business in Rivonia which had to rely on a communications link which ran through Bedfordview.

* Many companies which had put in generators to supply power during failures ran out of diesel fuel. Local pumps were unable to replenish tanks.

* Many companies which could afford outages of a few hours found that they had exceeded thresholds beyond which they experienced unacceptable organisational disruption.
Financial losses have been experienced by many parties from households to businesses. Knock-on effects have spread wider than just Bedfordview. Worse still, is that traditional measures for combating failures do not always work.
Where does this leave us?
We need to carefully assess how best you can protect yourself against the almost inevitable effects of the new scourge of business continuity, the extended power failure. While the recommendations are not foolproof, all encompassing, nor perfect, they may give some protection and ability to continue processing.
You need uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). This is the absolute minimum to give you time to get over very short duration power failures. The UPS will give only enough time to start your emergency generator, or shut your servers down in an orderly fashion, if you have no standby power.
You need a standby power generating power capability. Depending upon the size of your business this may vary from a small (less than 50 kW) to multiple large capacity generators. You need to be aware of how you can operate these units before replenishment of the fuel supply is required. If you have a small unit you can nip down to the local filling station, or one a distance away and refill the tank. If you have large generating capacity you may need a visit from a tanker. This takes time to arrange. You may need enough endurance to see you through a week. Certainly endurance times of less than 72 hours are wholly inadequate, and endurances of a week or more may be required.
You should have a disaster recovery contract which enables you to relocate to a spare working environment away from your power failure.
Give serious consideration to having a processing capability some distance away from your home office. You should be able to fail over to this facility at short notice. If you have any systems with short down-time tolerances, these systems should have the capability to replicate data to the remote site that you intend to operate from. After the power has failed, it is usually too late to get that data onto tape to move it to another site.
Perhaps it is time to sit and re-think how you do business. Consolidating all of your functions and staff into a single site may sound like a more efficient option, this brings new risks into the equation. Decentralised operations will be more resilient than centralised operations.
How long will all of this last?
My guess, and this is no more than a guess, is that it will take a number of years for us to escape from the problem. Demand will continue to rise, while generating capability can not be created within the next five or six years. During the next five or six years demand will continue to rise, moving the target further away. The distribution grid will take some time and concerted effort from the authorities to restore reliability. For the foreseeable future we are going to have the problem, and it is likely to get worse.
What can you do?
Do what you can to learn more about the problem and its possible mitigation. Knowledge is power, but may not lead to enlightenment in this scenario.
By being energy efficient we can all make a contribution to reducing the need for electrical power.
We also need to prepare to live without power from time to time.

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