August 2021

SOLA launches its first engineering bursary to encourage solar PV expertise amongst electrical engineers

SOLA has launched its first engineering bursary, giving the opportunity for a final year electrical engineering student to have their tuition paid for and a job opportunity as a graduate engineer in the solar PV field. The move comes as part of SOLA’s broader shared value strategy, that aims to bolster STEM education and give opportunities for young engineers seeking careers in renewable energy to flourish.

“It is a great step forward for us, and one we are very excited about,” said Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Group. “We know that there are incredibly smart students out there who have faced giant odds to get to where they are. We want to support them on this journey, because that will ultimately make our organisation stronger in the future,” he added.

The bursary is eligible to previously disadvantaged students who plan to enter into their final year of BSc or BEng electrical engineering at a Cape Town based institution in 2022. The bursary will include R75 000 tuition, paid vacation work, and a graduate engineering position after the studies have been completed. 

“We particularly encourage women to apply for the bursary, who have historically been underrepresented in our industry,” adds Wills. “We hope that this bursary can help to demonstrate the viability of a career in renewable energy and encourage more electrical engineers to take this direction.”

SOLA has been a great success story of the renewable energy industry, opening with just four people in 2008 and expanding to in excess of 80 employees in 2021, with some of South Africa’s biggest renewable energy projects under its belt: successful REIPPP bids, South Africa’s first large microgrid project on Robben Island, and securing South Africa’s first large-scale wheeling agreement. The bursary adds to the company’s contribution to South Africa’s economy and its commitment to see South Africa thrive.

Are you interested in applying for the bursary? Click here to find out the eligibility criteria and apply online before 31 August 2021.

What the 100 MW license cap lift means for your business

In June, amid much celebration, Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the amendment of Schedule 2 in the Electricity Regulation Act – a clause that has long had both producers and consumers of energy at loggerheads with government – was imminent. Today, the amendment was officially gazetted. However, what exactly does this amendment mean, and will it affect your business?

The Electricity Regulation Act of 2006 is an important piece of legislation that governs how electricity is generated and distributed in South Africa, and the roles of the various stakeholders involved. Schedule 2 used to specify that any electricity generation activity over 1 MW requires a generation licence. Essentially, this implied the same amount of paperwork for a huge coal-fired power plant as a rooftop solar system! The amendment to schedule 2 of the ERA means that this cap has now been lifted – which is great news for large energy consumers in South Africa.

What does the new Electricity Regulation Act Schedule 2 Amendment say?

In short, this amendment exempts certain activities from licencing and registration with the electricity regulator (Nersa). Such exemptions include:

  • Any generation facility without a connection to the grid
  • Any generation facility below 100 kW in size (provided it complies with standard connection codes);
  • Any generation facility with/without energy storage under 100 MW and either:
    • No wheeling;
    • A wheeling agreement (provided there’s a connection agreement between the generator and the transmitter of the power); or
    • No import or export on to the grid
  • Generation facilities that are used for demonstration purposes and will not be in operation for over 36 months
  • Existing generation facilities that were exempted from the requirement before the gazette need to register within 6 months, if it is compliant with the grid-code and connected to the grid.

This means that, essentially, electricity generation projects under 100 MW, whilst still needing to meet requisite grid-code compliance and normal permitting procedures, will not require a generation licence from Nersa.

This will mean that projects that have historically taken years to complete will now be able to be built much more quickly, thus providing private consumers of energy with power and alleviating South Africa’s electricity crisis. 

Are there still other permits required for electricity generation?

Yes, the relevant regulatory approvals are still required for self-generation. The main change under the new legislation is that projects between 1 – 100 MW will not require a Nersa generation licence, which are substantial and very complex licences to obtain. Historically, this meant that a project of 2 MW would require the same amount of paperwork as a large coal-generation facility (oven GW in size), and thus slowed the uptake of renewable energy quite dramatically. 

It’s important to note that the projects must still be registered with Nersa, in which the relevant grid approval documents and environmental approvals, amongst other documents, will be submitted. Nersa will review the documents over 60 business days before granting registration to the relevant projects.

If the client is part of the municipal grid network, they would still need to obtain the relevant permissions in order to self-generate. This is standard practice for all solar PV plants and is necessary to make sure that the municipality has oversight of how much their grid is likely to be loaded at a specific time. The capacity of the grid needs to be taken into consideration, and so weak grid areas are likely to remain constrained, regardless of legislation.

The gazetting of this ERA Schedule 2 amendment is incredibly positive and will make a big impact on the sentiment toward the Renewable Energy sector – both for the companies that supply renewable energy, as well as the large energy consumers.

What does the amendment say about energy storage? 

Whilst many large energy consumers choose to remain connected to the grid, as it allows the use of the cheapest form of energy at various times of the day (eg., solar during mid day, grid-supply during off-peak hours), there are increasing numbers of energy consumers that are using battery systems to supply them with power 24/7, which also prevents load shedding. The amendment includes energy storage provision – meaning that the licencing exemption applies to energy storage systems as well. 

Hybrid, “islandable” systems which act like on-grid systems, but automatically “island” during load-shedding, are also included in the provision. The opening of the self-generation threshold means that these islandable systems will be increasingly cost-effective, because larger solar PV systems can be built and their cheap power stored in batteries for dispatching during load shedding or the evenings. 

What is wheeling?

Wheeling is the transfer of energy from an independent power producer to a client via the grid. For our clients, this means that electricity can be generated in an area with lots of space and great solar resource, in order to supply an energy consumer that may not have the space or the solar resource available (such as our Amazon Wheeling project). Wheeling requires quite a few different licences, but the advantage of the generation threshold increase would mean that a Nersa generation licence would be one less piece of permitting required. 

Because of its affordability there is likely to be a great uptake of renewable energy with the ERA 2 amendment. We look forward to working with all relevant stakeholders to make this happen.

SOLA head of Project Development, Katherine Persson, visits a solar project.

What does a career in renewable energy look like if you’re a woman?

New SOLA executives lead the charge in a male-dominated industry

Whilst Women’s day in South Africa marks the historical contribution of women to ending Apartheid, it is also an opportunity to bring into public discourse the long way we have to go to reach gender equality. And it’s no different in the workplace – engineering is one of the most gender-unequal fields globally, and women are often sidelined and face multiple difficulties. However, as more women join and stay in the engineering profession, it paves the way for more diverse work cultures to thrive – so we asked some of our female executives to help us by giving an account of their experiences in the workplace so far. 

Getting started in renewable energy is often by chance, but it’s becoming increasingly easier to specialise in it from an earlier stage. “I got into renewable energy kind of by accident as one of the first jobs that came up when I left university was a role doing environmental studies for wind farms,” says Katherine Persson, Project Development Director at SOLA. “I’ve never really looked back since I started my career in renewable energy, it has always just seemed like a logical choice as it’s something that I enjoy doing and there has always been a need for my skills”.   

Robyn Moseley, Head of Operations and Maintenance at SOLA, agrees. “I was exposed to renewable energy concepts in my first job by chance, being given the task of looking into flywheel design, batteries, inverters and solar,” she remembers. “Once I started in the renewable energy industry I was hooked and never looked back”. 

“After my initial exposure to renewable energy, I signed up to do a Masters in renewable energy as I wanted to get to know more, but did not get into the business side until a couple of years later,” remembers Moseley.  Renewable energy courses used to be difficult to find, but now it’s becoming easier to go directly into renewable energy. “Renewable energy wasn’t ever punted to me as a career choice, so I’m super excited to see that entire University courses are now available, along with a growing industry that offers legitimate careers for people with lots of different education and skills backgrounds,” says Persson.

Despite both women creating thriving careers in Renewable Energy, it has not been without its challenges. It’s especially difficult to grow in a male-dominent environment where female mentors are rare. “There have not been many females which I have been able to utilise as mentors, so it has been a challenge to navigate and find ways of developing in the business, and work with my personality to find strengths and weaknesses to work on and grow.” says Moseley. 

Persson has had similar experiences. “I have worked hard to build my confidence working in male-dominated environments where I have sometimes suffered from a dash of ‘imposter syndrome’.  Over the years I’ve had hardly any exposure to working closely with females at executive level, which I think makes it even more challenging for women to learn and grow into these roles themselves.”

This, of course, is not helped by the microaggressions that many women face in a male-dominated environment, particularly how personal decisions are often judged in professional settings. “I face a lot of negativity about having a ‘demanding job’ when I have small children, although no-one asks about my husband’s ‘demanding job’, even though he also works full time,” sighs Persson. Moseley’s experience is similar. “I was once asked how my husband was going to eat for the week while I was away on site, or who takes care of my child when I am away,” she adds. These microaggressions can be exhausting to face on a daily basis, and add to the reasons that many female engineers leave the workforce. 

Then again, they are both extremely happy to have pursued careers in Renewable Energy. “The places I’ve travelled to for work, and the amazing people I’ve met, are definitely career highlights for me,” says Persson. “Being involved in Renewable Energy has allowed me to visit many interesting countries, such as Jordan and Rwanda, and I’ve kept in contact with many people throughout my career and made many friends,” adds Moseley.

There can be no doubt that the Renewable Energy industry, like most engineering-heavy sectors, have a long way to go in terms of creating equitable workplaces. Both Persson and Moseley agree that the sector has a long way to go, although green shoots are starting to appear, making the environment friendlier for women. To women seeking to enter into the renewable energy profession, Persson offers the following tips:

  • Although there are lots of engineering positions in renewable energy, don’t be tricked by thinking that it is only for engineers: our industry needs environmental scientists, social specialists, finance experts, logistics experts, lawyers, marketing experts, HR managers, etc. There is a space here for everyone to find their own flavour of ‘technical’.  
  • Be ready to learn, and learn fast. The demands of the renewable energy industry are changing all the time.   
  • Find a mentor – someone that can help guide and support you along the way. 
  • Groups of women in similar industries – such as WE Connect for women in renewable energy in South Africa – are also great sources of support.

“The renewable energy industry is vast and still growing.  There are many facets to the business and opportunities are there for any profession to thrive.  If you are willing to learn, dive in and be able to keep up with a fast-paced environment, renewables is for you,” echoes Moseley.

Are you still studying, but interested in pursuing a career in renewable energy? If you’re currently pursuing your BEng or BSc Eng in Electrical Engineering, you could qualify for SOLA’s engineering bursary. Click here to read more!

If you are currently working in renewable energy, have a look at our careers page for any vacancies we currently have available.