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Future looks sunny for expanding renewable energy sector in SA

Future looks sunny for expanding renewable energy sector in SA
FFS Renewable Pty Ltd, a solar farm in Frankfort, Free State, owned by 21 private individuals, farmers and businesses(active in the Mafube community. The first part of its now 4.2MW of generation capacity was commissioned at the end of 2021. South Africa's Energy Council champions the ERA Bill as a crucial step towards a greener, more efficient energy future, but sceptics warn that the recent respite from rolling blackouts may just be a political mirage, as private sector renewables take the stage in the country's evolving energy landscape.(Photo: SNW consulting)

The passing of the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill by Parliament earlier this month takes the energy sector a step closer towards the unbundling of Eskom and a more competitive energy market.

The Energy Council of South Africa says the implementation of the new transmission company envisioned in the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill (ERA) Bill and already legally established by Eskom, will help to facilitate and accelerate the investment, policy development and skills required to modernise the grid for a low-carbon future and energy security.

“South Africa is already moving rapidly towards a decentralised electricity system, with more than 5GW of installed rooftop solar PV and hundreds of large-scale utility wind and solar projects moving into construction. The enactment of the ERA Bill will help to ensure that this cheaper and cleaner generation capacity can effectively be brought online optimally, and to the benefit of all electricity consumers,” said James Mackay, chief executive of the Energy Council.

Although South Africa is currently at a record 62 days without rolling blackouts, many have dismissed this as an electioneering ploy by the ruling party. Commenting on that line of thought, Jan Fourie, the new chief executive at renewable energy developer and power producer Mulilo, says he doesn’t think rolling blackouts are over by “any stretch of the imagination”. “I’m fairly convinced that the amount of diesel being burned is being understated for political reasons. The work Eskom started a few years back in terms of maintenance is rendering some fruit now, and we have the private sector coming to the table with rooftop solar, but this is a temporary reprieve,” he says.

In April this year, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) consented to Eskom’s request to transfer its control over independent power producers (IPPs) to the National Transmission Company of South Africa (NTCSA).

Private sector entry

The NTCSA will be Eskom’s transmission subsidiary under the unbundling process that will split Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution entities.

Fourie says the passing of the ERA bill means that over time, Eskom will diminish in importance on the generation side. “This will open a gap for the private sector and renewables to step up when it comes to new energy generation,” he said.

Mulilo plans to bring 5GW of renewable energy and battery energy storage projects into construction and operation by 2028. The company currently operates 420MW of wind and solar projects, is nearing financial close for an additional 1,263MW and has a long-term development pipeline of more than 30GW.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Johnny Cullum, outgoing CEO and founder of Mulilo Energy

In July last year, Mulilo concluded a long-term power purchase agreement with Air Products South Africa under which Air Products will procure up to 75MW of renewable energy from a state-of-the-art solar farm, set to be constructed in the Northern Cape. The solar farm will be jointly owned by Air Products and Mulilo, demonstrating their collaborative efforts to foster clean energy initiatives.

Once operational, the solar farm will have an impressive capacity to generate approximately 240GWh of electricity annually. Fourie says this substantial output will contribute significantly to the country’s renewable energy targets, reducing reliance on conventional power sources and promoting a greener future.

Renewables energy job market heats up

Fourie says he would encourage the youth of today to seriously consider bringing their skill set to the renewable energy space. With the current boom in the market, there are job opportunities across various professions including legal, financial, environmental, human resources, marketing, and communications.

“Renewables is an incredible space to operate in. Not only can you secure a good job, but you can get up every day and proudly tell people how your work is making the world a better, more sustainable place,” he says.

Ashton Ngwenya, a talent manager at the Polyglot group, says the sector’s rapid expansion has ignited a demand for skilled business developers and sales professionals, but he hastens to add that with opportunities come challenges, particularly in the fiercely competitive job market.

“Success in this arena demands a blend of technical know-how, business savvy, and interpersonal finesse. Backgrounds in engineering, finance, or environmental science coupled with sales and project management experience are highly valued. Certifications in renewable energy technologies further enhance credibility,” he says.

Ngwenya says there’s high turnover in the employment market, with a median tenure of just 1.3 years. This turnover indicates that professionals are often on the lookout for new opportunities, making it a prime time for career switches. Stats SA says the number of unemployed people ballooned to 8.2 million in the first quarter of this year, from 7.9 million in the last quarter of 2023. This means more than 300,000 became unemployed between the fourth quarter of 2023 and the first quarter of 2024. DM

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