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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.

New report shows that job creation in the PV sector is inevitable

In the most conservative case, we’re looking at over 30 000 jobs created per year in the solar PV industry 

Job creation is one of the most important considerations for the South African economy. Sitting at around 29%, unemployment is a serious hindrance to the South African economy. The creation of solar PV systems for the government and private clients brings down costs and increases energy reliability, bolstering profitability and growing businesses. However, the question of how many jobs the PV industry creates has been a hot topic for several years. 

A new study, completed by the CSIR and commissioned by the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) with sponsorship from SOLA, has set out to look at just how many jobs solar PV has created in South Africa so far, and what we can expect from the industry in the future. 

Measuring jobs in the PV sector is tricky, because of the variability of jobs throughout the life-cycle of each plant. Typically, both large-scale and embedded generation plants will have quite a lot of employment during the construction phase, which taper off when the plant goes into Operation & Maintenance (O&M). However, these jobs last the lifetime of the plant, and thus are cumulative over time. 

How are solar jobs measured?


There’s been much discussion about how to measure jobs in the solar PV sector,  which has not had a unified approach or metric, resulting in confusion about the numbers of jobs created by the industry. As such, the first step in the research was coming up with a useful way to measure jobs, particularly those in the solar PV sector that tend to undulate based on construction times. 

Based on an international literature review and experiences in other survey approaches, the CSIR used “Full Time Equivalent” (FTE) as a metric to measure jobs. A FTE job looks at the amount of time that a worker spends at a job compared to a full time employee. For example, if an employee only works half-time, their FTE score would be 0.5. As a result, the metrics represented by FTE show what the equivalent full-time employment would be per annum for a particular job.

In addition, the CSIR used a standardised unit output of MW per annum in order to be able to compare jobs across the value chain. As such, the jobs in the analysis and in the future scenario modelling are represented FTE jobs per MW per annum. This allows the job statistics to be comparable across different sectors and in relation to other forms of employment creation, and takes a conservative view on estimating jobs.

The predicted scenarios for job creation in the solar PV industry in South Africa

The report looked at historical data in order to create a model to predict future employment scenarios in the sector. It modelled three different scenarios, the IRP 2019 scenario, the accelerated case scenario, and the high road scenario.

  1. The IRP 2019 scenario

This scenario looks purely at the jobs resulting from the Integrated Resources Plan 2019 by the South African Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. In this scenario, the solar PV industry would create between 33 000 – 35 000 jobs per year from 2022 and 2030, but there would be little consistency and large variations between years. 

  1. The accelerated scenario

This scenario takes into consideration the growth of the market outside of the IRP guidelines, and assumes that utility scale solar PV will be built in addition to embedded generation, owing to the government’s intention to allow more embedded generation to plug the energy supply gap in the short term. In this scenario, an initial spike in job creation of 51 580 FTE jobs will be created during 2022, followed by a dip back to 31 131 FTE jobs in 2023 and climbing to consistently to 37 975 jobs by 2030

  1. The high-road scenario

In this scenario, the predicted import of solar modules is expected to increase, in addition to the building of both Utility and embedded generation solar PV facilities, which continue to grow post-2022. In this scenario, jobs are expected to bounce up in 2022 to 53 422 FTE jobs, and return to 33 972 in 2023, growing steadily to 39 817 FTE jobs in 2030.

What does this mean for the sector?

The jobs report paints a picture of what the expected job creation trajectories will look like. The research highlights the fact that the halting of renewable energy procurement in 2015 was devastating to the jobs in the sector, but has not prevented it from recovering in the recent years. There are some important aspects to consider in order to ensure the maximum job creation:

  • O&M jobs are the most sustainable, as they run throughout the lifetime of each PV facility (usually around 20 – 25 years). They have the potential to create substantial, lasting job opportunities in the sector.
  • Localising PV component manufacturing could have a significant effect on the growth of PV-sector jobs in South Africa, particularly if there is a clear path to how much the sector will grow each year.
  • The embedded generation market is a very important player in the creation of PV jobs, but has been hindered by policy uncertainty. 

Overall, the report shows that whichever scenario ends up playing out, there is likely to be significant growth of solar PV jobs in the coming years. 

Download the full report here.

Interested in working for us? Have a look at our careers page for possible vacancies.

Energy Wheeling supplies power to areas located away from the direct source of power

SOLA gets approval for largest solar PV wheeling agreement in South Africa

A flagship renewable energy project, commissioned by Amazon, is set to demonstrate the flexibility and convenience of procuring independent power through the electricity grid. The project will see 28 GWh of solar energy wheeled via Eskom’s utility grid from a solar farm in the Northern Cape to Amazon’s facilities each year.

Energy wheeling holds tremendous value in that it enables the supply of energy to urban areas from energy projects in outlying areas, such as a solar farm located in an area where the sun is most powerful and consistent. This is done through the transfer of electrical power via a utility’s distribution system. In other words, the power generated in a sunny area is distributed to an offtaker where there might be less solar resource. 

Chris Haw, SOLA’s Executive Director, explains that although the concept of wheeling energy using Eskom’s existing infrastructure has been in place since 2008, certain administrative barriers have hindered the uptake of such services. “This project, which comprises a 10 MW solar PV farm, has also received a sought-after generation license from NERSA, a milestone that other similar projects have struggled to achieve.”

SOLA will be responsible for developing the project and will build, own and operate the solar facility.

Haw explains that the NERSA process requires a signed Power Purchase Agreement and fully developed project in order to obtain approval. “This creates contractual challenges because many inputs, such as the foreign exchange rate, are still fluctuating whilst the application process is underway. The high standard of development required for submission means that NERSA are not handing out licenses to projects that won’t proceed, which is a very good thing.” 

The project aligns with the South African Government’s intent to open the electricity grid, allowing independent generators of electricity and consumers to enter into bilateral agreements to optimise the cost and sustainability of energy, which has previously been difficult to achieve. The generation license received from NERSA is one of the first granted as part of the recent allocation made for distributed electricity generation in order to plug the short-term capacity gap.

Haw says that SOLA will deliver the energy via the Transmission Network though a Wheeling Use-of-System agreement. “This Wheeling Use of System Agreement is the first of its kind and the largest solar PV wheeling arrangement in South Africa to date.”

Haw credits the company’s multi-disciplined skillset and 10-year track record of developing, financing and building solar PV projects in South Africa with overcoming the many challenges that were faced.

The SOLA Group has a history of breaking down barriers to enable renewable energy projects in South Africa. The group developed some of the county’s first IPP projects, signed the first bi-directional metering agreements with municipalities, and are responsible for innovative solar-plus-storage projects like the microgrid currently powering Robben Island.

The project will be majority black South African-owned, demonstrating a pivotal dedication to transformation in South Africa’s energy sector. Mahlako a Phahla Investments, a black women-owned and operated energy and infrastructure investment holding company will own 45% of the project.

Other investors into the project include African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM), through the IDEAS Fund, one of South Africa’s largest domestic infrastructure equity funds and one of the largest investors in the country’s renewable energy landscape.

The project’s success could mean that more companies like Amazon will look to procure cleaner independent power through the grid.

“This project is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the electricity picture in South Africa could look like,” says Haw. “Projects like this demonstrate the potential of a truly modernized electricity market where consumers can procure cleaner energy through state-owned grid lines whilst paying for their upkeep in the process,” he adds.

The project will begin construction in early 2021.

How electricity generation has changed over the past 10 years – and what it bodes for our future

Alongside the global pandemic, electricity has been on many South African’s minds this year. And rightly so: South Africans can expect a 15% increase in their electricity costs from mid-2021, based on a recent court ruling which grants Eskom the right to recover operating costs through additional tariff escalations. This will mark more than a decade of average annual increases of 14%, relative to average inflation of just under 6%.

These escalations have fundamentally changed South Africa’s economy: the manufacturing and mining sectors have been particularly affected by the rising tariffs, and are doubly affected by the inconsistent supply caused by load shedding. South Africa’s electricity supply from the grid is subject to decreasing reliability, with 2020 already shaping up to be the worst on record for load shedding.

What South Africa is experiencing is not unique, but exposes the global trends that expose the high costs of maintaining an aging and centralised coal fleet. A decade ago, average Eskom tariffs were two times lower than they are today, and the costs of installing solar PV were two to three times higher. That situation is very different today: Eskom and municipal electricity tariffs are now substantially more expensive than solar PV installations on an average, lifetime cost basis. This is driving strong uptake of own-use solar generators, despite persistent policy and regulatory barriers.

This is because the electricity market has fundamentally changed over the last 10 years. The growing cost gap between the grid and solar PV means that the benefits of solar are more economically viable, even if the PV plants generate more power than required (for example on weekends, when a factory does not operate). 

For private electricity consumers, solar electricity is typically used to offset daytime electricity consumption through ‘own-use’ or ‘embedded’ generators that service the electricity needs of the facility on-site. The uptake of embedded solar generation has exploded in South Africa, particularly amongst the retail and manufacturing sectors, because of the cost savings generated by the plants. Despite this, embedded generators are largely restricted from selling power into the grid, although it is looking hopeful that this might change

The fact that solar PV is so much more affordable than Eskom’s grid is also changing the way in which solar PV is consumed by large commercial and industrial facilities. For example, some facilities choose to oversize their solar PV system relative to on-site electricity demand in order to increase morning and afternoon solar electricity production, generate more power in winter, save more diesel during load shedding, reduce peak grid demand charges, and achieve higher overall reductions in grid electricity consumption. 


Other commercial and industrial facilities are opting to oversize their solar PV systems and store the excess affordable power in battery banks – something that, 10 years ago, would have been ludicrously expensive. However, with Eskom’s tariffs increasing the way they are, and with the reduction in the costs of energy storage components, the business case is starting to emerge. The advancement in electricity generation technology gives businesses more flexibility and options when it comes to their energy choices. Own-use solar – whether on or off grid – is an affordable and, by now, well-used option.

Load Shedding Solutions for Your Business

Load Shedding, unfortunately, has become a norm in South Africa. Even though load shedding takes place to stop the entire country from experiencing a permanent blackout (by the collapsing of the whole electricity supply grid), load shedding still has major negative effects on the economy in South Africa. 

Several reports now estimate that South Africa will experience severe load shedding for at least two more years. The frequency of load shedding, even during COVID 19’s economic standstill, indicates just how fragile Eskom’s fleet has become, and businesses have to find a solution to remain operational. The positive news is that a plethora of technology now exists which can help your business to find a solution to ending the nightmare of operational disturbances.

The causes of load shedding 

Load shedding happens when there is not enough electricity available to meet the demand of all customers. In order to maintain grid stability, the electricity utility supplier will interrupt the energy supply to certain areas on a rotational basis.  The winter-months are prone to load shedding, as it can be  caused by the higher demand for electricity during cold weather, which causes the power station stations to be overloaded and  struggle to  keep up with generating the needed electricity capacity.

According to Eskom and government officials, the solution is a capacity problem, requiring the construction of additional power stations and generators. However, the procurement of additional national capacity could be a lengthy process. In the meantime, there are alternative electricity solutions to help businesses during load shedding.

Various methods can be used to minimise the impact of load shedding, and below we suggest a few solutions businesses can use to see their operational disturbances be minimised. 

Solutions to load shedding

1. Uninterruptible power supply systems (UPS systems) 

A UPS is an electrical apparatus that provides emergency power to a load when the main power supply or utility power fails.

A UPS is the bare minimum when it comes to business operational management, as it allows for the safe, orderly shutdown of computers and connected equipment. The size and design of a UPS will determine how long it will supply power.

A UPS will only work if power banks are fully charged and on standby when needed. Unfortunately these are short term solutions, due to the fact that the power banks may run out of power before the electricity comes back on. This means that, once the UPS’s reserve has been depleted, there is no alternative supply of power, which might negatively impact productivity and affect day to day operating of the business.

2. Backup generator  

Many businesses have turned to backup generators to ensure the continuous supply of power. Generators typically use diesel or gas, and convert mechanical energy into electrical energy as the output. 

Gas generators can be used for residential emergency power supply and can last about 2 to 3 hours,  which may not be ideal for a business function. Diesel generators, on the other hand, can run for 20 – 30 hours, depending on their capacity.

However, with the ever increasing price of fuel, running a generator can become prohibitively expensive. The lifespan of a generator depends on its run hours – a generator that is used infrequently could last around 20 years. In a scenario of increased and consistent load shedding, generators may need to be replaced more frequently. 

In addition, it is important to consider the noise and fumes that a generator might emit, which can be an additional frustration to an already stressful working environment. 

Diesel generators on Robben Island

3. Grid-tied PV Solar system 

A solar PV system is composed of solar modules combined with an inverter and other electrical and mechanical hardware that use energy from the sun to generate electricity. PV systems can vary greatly in size, from small rooftop or portable systems to massive utility-scale generation plants. In South Africa, which has fantastic irradiation, solar PV tends to be the most affordable kind of power to generate.

However, typical solar PV systems are grid-tied, meaning that they would go down during load shedding. This is because, although the sun may continue to shine during a power outage, the inverters will automatically switch off in the event of a grid outage. An inverter is required for solar PV systems in South Africa, to convert the DC power generated by the modules to AC power, which is used in buildings and commercial operations. Inverters are designed to switch off in the event of a power outage, to ensure the safety of personnel that could be working on the grid during an outage.

Luckily, a simple “workaround” can ensure that during the day, a solar PV system can still remain operational during a power outage. As we explained in our previous post about load shedding, installing hardware and a simple generator/UPS system can ensure that inverters remain on during outages, and the solar PV system can continue to generate low-cost power during this time. Several SOLA customers have used this technology, such as Old Mutual Park. 

Old Mutual Solar Carport

Installing a solar PV system is a great cost effective way to get your business not having to deal with the crisis of load shedding in South Africa.

4. Off-grid solar PV system

An off-grid solar PV and battery system, also known as a stand-alone power system (SAPS), or solar PV microgrid, works by balancing several electricity sources, such as solar PV and batteries. Solar PV microgrids work by generating electricity from solar modules and using them to charge a battery via a charger controller.

An off-grid system works independently of a utility grid , which makes it an independent power generation source, ideal for remote or rural areas, such as the microgrid in Clanwilliam’s Cedar mill Mall.  However, with increased load shedding, this form of electricity generation is starting to make financial sense in urban areas too.

Although many companies may be reluctant to move off-grid,  solar PV microgrids are becoming the most long-term and cost effective solution for permanent power supply in South Africa. 

Cedar Mill Mall Solar PV Microgrid

Conclusion

With the prospect of load shedding being around for at least another three years, considering viable alternative sources of power is important for business. With the rising tariffs and other issues at Eskom, companies need to seek out the best alternative power generation options for their businesses. 

Now that we are ready to “reopen” our economy after the COVID 19 lockdown, load shedding will be a reality for many businesses. The good news is that there are lots of options for business owners to ensure continuous power – whether through a  UPS system, backup generators or solar PV systems. The options are there to help ease your mind with the effect that load shedding has caused to businesses.

Women in STEM: SOLA engineers share their experience

Women’s Day in South Africa commemorates the importance of women’s involvement in the struggle against apartheid, particularly the march against pass laws in 1956. As a company, SOLA is in the business of engineering, a sector in which women have been historically underrepresented. But SOLA is committed to diversity – and believes in the power of diverse thought to enhance the work that we do.  Today, we take a look at two women engineers at SOLA who are on their own mission to change the world.

Solar engineer at SOLA

Abi Majoka is an electrical engineer with four years of experience designing solar PV facilities. Her mother, an architect, was purportedly the reason that she decided on engineering as a career. “I was encouraged to make a change to the narrative that women can’t handle certain tasks,” says Abi. 

Role models are an important aspect of driving more women to choose male-dominated fields for their career path. Amelia Bergh, a mechanical engineer by training who started as an intern at SOLA, was lucky enough to have several strong female role models in her family. She believes that she was drawn to engineering through her interest in finding and solving problems.

Women solar engineers at SOLA


“Growing up on a farm…I very soon found myself interested in fixing each and every problem. Engineering was the best degree I could think of to back up this interest.” 

Since beginning her career as an intern at SOLA, Amelia has come to be responsible for several large-scale solar PV designs, including one for Prospecton Brewery in Durban, a 1.3 MW solar system that is one of the 8 MW fleet that SOLA built for ABinBev last year. Abi was also involved in this project, designing the 1.3 MW system at Polokwane Brewery in Limpopo. 

Solar PV engineering for AB InBev at Prospecton Brewery Durban
All hands on deck: Amelia with colleague Milano Singh on site at Prospecton Brewery, Durban

Despite their experience, both engineers are proudest of their first designs. “No one forgets their first labour,” Abi laughs, remembering her first design at SOLA, a 944 kWp system at Dainfern Mall in Fourways. Amelia’s first design, for the Western Cape Blood Service, also made a meaningful impact. “It was a small project but I am still very proud of it,” she adds. Indeed, a career in engineering means being able to tackle challenging problems and be rewarded by providing workable, cost-effective solutions. “In many cases, my work measurably improves the safety and/or quality of life for people,” Abi adds. 

But being a female engineer isn’t always easy. “Being outnumbered, on any front, is not enjoyable, and being a female engineering student or professional you are outnumbered 1/10 at a good time,” says Amelia. The effects of having few women in engineering fields are widespread and high impact – from the design of seatbelts meaning women are much more likely to die in car crashes to design of stoves that impact negatively on women’s health. Thus having a diversity of perspectives is important – particularly in engineering.  

Being in the minority can also manifest in day-to-day work scenarios for women in engineering. “I have to constantly show my strength and ability to execute tasks that are not ‘womanlike’,” Abi states. Amelia agrees. “Being a woman in our industry definitely gets people thinking. I am gaining momentum on my experience and am proud to be showing everyone that a woman can do it too,” she adds.

SOLA has always been committed to diversity, formalising their policy in this regard in 2019 and solidifying diversity as one of their core values. Whilst there is a long way to go, the rewards serve everyone, both internal employees and clients alike. “We are lucky enough to have quite a few supportive women within our company which I turn to when I am wanting to chat to a female,” Amelia adds.

What advice do Abi and Amelia have for other women who would like to start their careers in male-dominated fields? “Don’t settle for a work environment that does not support your growth and give you opportunities to expand your knowledge,” says Amelia. “Make sure to surround yourself with people that see past your gender and are proud to have you in their team.” Abi puts it more simply. “Show up and be relevant. We can do it!”

If you are a female engineer or interested in becoming an engineer, have a look at this list of resources for female engineers. Also, keep an eye on SOLA’s social media and careers page for job opportunities. 

Removal of Power Constraints Crucial for Post COVID-19 Recovery

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick Opinion Section.

It is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely.

Demand for electricity has plunged with the onset of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, removing the threat of load shedding for its three-week duration. It could be several months before the economy is up and running normally again, but it would be a big mistake to forget the power constraints which plagued SA in the weeks before the pandemic struck.

When Moody’s downgraded SA on 27 March, it pointed out that unreliable electricity supply and its impact on the economy was one of the main reasons for the decision. The ratings agency also pointed out that a strategy to stabilise electricity production in the country has failed to materialise and that as a result, economic growth would remain low for years. Returning to a constrained electricity supply without an adequate government response is the last thing embattled businesses need after COVID-19. 

Against this background, it is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely. In addition, the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) has inexplicably halted all new licensing applications for the duration of the lockdown period. 

For connected projects larger than 1MW — which applies to most of the pent-up demand for corporate generation of electricity — a license is still required from NERSA even if the installation is for a customer’s own use, or established through a bilateral agreement involving only a customer and an independent power producer.

These onerous license application processes were intended for large, utility style power stations, hundreds of MWs in size, and each requires a public participation process with hearings. They have requirements which make the development of smaller project impractical. The official time for NERSA to issue these licenses is 120 days but in practice it takes far longer — with some cases so far taking as long as two years.

NERSA is theoretically able to process license applications, but in practice is inadequately resourced to handle the quantity of smaller applications that are now being made. This regulatory blockage is holding up the roll out of hundreds of MWs of electricity generation, which would be the fastest way to alleviate the power constraints which lead to load shedding. 

This point has been repeatedly made by independent bodies like the Minerals Council of SA, Business Unity SA, the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It has been recognised by Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who indicated at the mining Indaba in March 2020 that self-generation of any size would not require licensing. 

Companies in the private sector were hopeful that their pleas for the 1MW cap on licensing for their own electricity generation would be lifted to 10MW, which would include most of the projects they want to implement. And yet, when the eagerly awaited Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act was published on 26 March, the 1MW threshold for grid-connected facilities exempt from licensing was maintained. 

The shape of the national load profile – when and how much electricity is used – is important to Government because it affects which mix of electricity is most cost effective. Its preferable to have a load profile that allows for the maximum usage of the cheapest resources available to the country. From this angle, the control over who builds what generation is understandable, but even with this argument considered, the amount of solar power in South Africa still represents under 5% of installed capacity, and less than 2% of the consumed energy.

A 10MW solar generator represents 0.006% of annual electricity demand and 150 of such projects would need to be installed to reach 1% of the total demand. Lifting the license exemption threshold to 10MW will initially have negligible effect on the demand profile but a huge effect on lifting red tape in the way of more energy coming onstream and supporting small to medium size businesses. It is always possible for the state to monitor the uptake and lower the threshold for licences at a later stage if necessary.

As the chairperson of a solar PV company, the SOLA Group, I have seen many clients desperate to install larger solar plants than the 1 MVA limit to alleviate their electricity constraints and lower their costs. These projects are practically ready to be rolled out – and could be built within 8-12 months – if the licensing hurdle is removed. 

From my extensive experience in the solar PV industry in South Africa I estimate that, without such restrictions, solar PV companies could build 500 MWs within the next 12 – 18 months. The wasted opportunity due to these arbitrary licence requirements is obvious and destructive.

For the sake of saving businesses and creating jobs post COVID-19, I urge government to:

  • Lift the threshold on requirement for a generation license from 1MW to 10MW until the embedded generation allocation in SA’s new Integrated Resource Plan has been reached.
  • Require that these projects are registered with NERSA upon their commercial operation date through submission of an independent certificate of compliance against which the allocation to embedded generation can be measured, and keep the database of installed MWs public and updated.
  • Ensure that NERSA is provided with, or creates, clear guidelines as to the technical standards that must be met to obtain a generation license for generation projects above 10MW in size.
  • Provide NERSA with the resources, both through budget and staff, to evaluate the applications in a meaningful, prompt and scientific way.
  • Return to processing and receiving licence applications during the lockdown.

The business case for installing embedded power generation remains for the private sector, and the economy will once again start moving when the impact of the pandemic subsides. It would be tragic if its potential to recover is thwarted by continued electricity shortages. 

Solar Power Systems - Alrode Brewery in Alberton - industrial solar power system

AB InBev bolster breweries with 8.7 MW renewable energy from SOLA

Renewable energy solutions are a quick and efficient way for South Africa to reduce energy demand on Eskom’s constrained grid, and solutions are being supported by businesses who see the value of embedded electricity solutions for their supply chains. 

This is according to Chris Haw, Chairperson of the SOLA Group, who in 2018 signed seven multi-tiered Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with AB InBev Africa that are seeing large solar power plants built across seven major breweries in South Africa.

The Power Purchase Agreements will total around 8.7 MW DC capacity. Of this, 2.6 MW have already reached practical completion with the remaining projects in advanced stages of construction.

“Not only is solar a viable and cost-effective option for us, it aligns to our global sustainability strategy, which entails going 100% renewable by 2025,” says Taryn Rosekilly, Vice President of Procurement and Sustainability at SAB and AB InBev Africa.

ABin Bev Breweries will now be powered with solar energy

The bold step taken by AB InBev Africa highlights the private sector’s strong drive towards reducing carbon emissions and procuring renewable energy solutions.

Gugulethu Nogaya, the Renewable Energy Procurement Manager at AB InBev Africa explains that “procuring renewable energy is part of our sustainability objectives set at a global level. Our global renewable energy commitment is to ensure that 50% of our purchased electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2020, and 100% by 2025”. 

Nogaya points out that the company has achieved its 50 % target ahead of schedule. “We are currently on track to achieve our 100 % target, with the PPA being an instrumental first step in ensuring our African business is on track to achieve the 2025 ambition.”  

Nogaya adds that “in order to meet the AB InBev 100 % target in South Africa, it will require solar renewable energy facilities to the total of 191 MW.” 

Jonathan Skeen, Gauteng MD and Gugulethu Nogaya, Renewable Energy Procurement Manager, at the launch of AB InBev's renewable electricity and electric truck launch

According to the International Energy Agency, distributed solar PV systems in homes and Commercial and Industrial buildings have almost tripled since 2014. It predicts that distributed energy will grow as much as onshore wind by 2024, making up half of all new solar PV capacity. 

This is likely due to the flexibility and affordability of PV plants compared to other forms of energy generation. The rollout of large-scale solar PV systems takes much less time than other generation technologies. 

There is also a greater demand and expectation that businesses take more responsibility for the way in which they operate. Providing renewable energy allows businesses to meet their sustainability targets whilst taking pressure off of Eskom’s load.

The PPA between AB InBev Africa and the SOLA Group is allowing solar PV to be rolled out without AB InBev incurring capital costs. Instead, the company will purchase its power requirement directly from SOLA, with the remainder coming from Eskom and local municipalities. 

In 2019, SOLA secured R400 M with partners from African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM) and Nedbank in order to fund projects such as the AB InBev Africa solar facilities.

“Embedded electricity generation – particularly solar PV – can quickly address Eskom’s supply shortfall,” states Haw. “For large Commercial and Industrial companies, procuring renewable power enables saving costs whilst also reducing their carbon footprints.” 

The solar PV plants for AB InBev Africa span across seven different sites in various areas of the country, including the Western Cape, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. 

“Combined, the plants will consist of over 23 000 solar panels. The construction of the projects will create 175 jobs, in addition to SOLA’s 56 permanent positions,” points out Haw. 

AB InBev Africa is one of the largest industrial business in South Africa, making the conversion of their sites to solar significant. “The PV systems will produce close to 14 GWh of electricity per year – the equivalent of taking over 2000 cars off the roads. This is exactly the type of clean energy procurement that we need to see more companies committing to,” concludes Haw.