The Skills Prospects From Renewable Energy - Business Media MAGS

Sunday Times Skills

The Skills Prospects From Renewable Energy

Is the green energy sector a dark horse for employment? James Francis finds out.

The local renewable energy sector is growing fast, making South Africa a top investment destination for green energy projects. It is tempting to assume this primes the sector as a major job creator, but is that the case? What are the employment possibilities from green energy, and where should we look to find those new jobs?

This question is tricky to answer. According to Nato Oosthuizen, audit partner: Renewable Energy at BDO South Africa, investment in the sector is currently very attractive. In addition,  the current presidency’s support for those efforts is encouraging further inflows. Yet that does not necessarily correlate to similarly booming levels of employment.

“The sector’s growth has pros and cons. The pros are that significant investment will flow. But the con of that is that skill development takes time.”

Specifically, the high-level skills needed to design and establish energy generation sites are still mainly from abroad. Even local firms running such projects tend to outsource the more technically specific tasks to international renewable energy equipment suppliers involved in the project, with input and support from local expertise. Though those arrangements can encourage skills transfers, it is a niche area. Oosthuizen explains that the near-term opportunities are around construction, with potential for manufacturing.

“Many components can be manufactured locally. Certain things, for example, structural stands and pivots, or welding work and building foundations, can be done by locals. Final tweaking and installation are often done by overseas experts.”

Some components, such as solar panels, struggle to compete against prices from places such as China. Yet other parts, for example, wind turbine towers, make more economic sense if they are locally fabricated.

In the sub-1 megawatt segment, which is exempt from licencing, there is tremendous opportunity for installers and artisan manufacturers to provide services and components to local customers. Oosthuizen notes that the untapped potential for home and business installations could be as much as 73 gigawatts and does not rely as heavily on imported skills.

Fortunately, the local industry does not expect its skills growth to happen spontaneously. Over the past decade, it has been bolstering skills development, says Niveshen Govender, COO of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA). “The solar PV industry had embarked on a process to establish a Solar PV Service Technician qualification at NQF level 5, allowing skills development in solar PV system design, installations, operation and maintenance at both a small-scale and utility-scale.”

Indeed, there is considerable sector development activity. SAPVIA has been hosting popular developmental webinars aimed at new entrants to the market. Three years ago, it launched the PV GreenCard Programme to promote safe and quality small-scale project installations.

“The programme has a key pillar in skills development aligned with the national curriculum and international best practice. Through this programme, we have managed to train more than 1 200 participants already. We have further recently constituted a Skills for PV working group to identify other key areas of concern and possible solutions going forward,” says Govender.

Renewables can be a massive job creator, but it’s not a straight line. There are near-term wins (construction), mid-term potential (manufacturing), room for eventual technical skills transfers, and a sub-1 megawatt industry bubbling with incredible potential. If South Africa can retain the focus of investors and policymakers, the entrepreneurs will follow, and green energy will do more than just light up our homes.

Niveshen Govender

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