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Innovation and skills needed to help South Africa reach full solar generation potential

Innovation and skills needed to help South Africa reach full solar generation potential

By Viren Sookhun

South Africa’s power crisis is no secret, and this, coupled with global commitment to transition toward net zero, and the case for the transition to renewable energy, is clear.

The country’s climate makes it ideal for solar, with among the highest average hours of sunshine per year in the world.

Adding solar capacity to our energy mix is a matter of priority.

However, there is a finite amount of open land available, and solar farms make this land unusable for any other purpose.

We need to come up with innovative solutions to maximise our solar generation capability, and this requires specialised skills, which is where a Temporary Employment Services (TES) provider is perfectly positioned to assist.

The space problem

In terms of solar generation, there have been numerous solar farms and a lot of capacity installed, predominantly in the Northern Cape. In October 2022, Eskom signed a land lease agreement with four Independent Power Producers (IPPs) for them to produce 2000MW. These projects are expected to be up and running within the next 36 months.

However, what we have also seen is that in Bid Window 5 and Bid Window 6, solar is getting a lower allocation than wind, partly because of the sheer amount of real estate needed for a large-generation solar farm. This land will be tied up for the life of the farm, which is up to 25 years, and cannot be used for other purposes, including agriculture.

Thinking higher

The reality is that we do not have sufficient open land to power our electricity needs through solar farms, so we need to start thinking more innovatively. If we take solar generation to a higher level, for example commercial and residential rooftops, there is a massive amount of real estate that we can leverage. This can be used for embedded generation as well as be fed back into the national grid.

In addition, if we cover the large open parking lots that are abundant throughout the country at malls, office parks and city centres with awnings, this space can also be used for the installation of solar panels. From a residential perspective, if we make solar more affordable and attractive through new financing models, tax incentives and rebates, more homes will be able to produce their own power and feed excess back into the grid.

Innovation is vital

Aside from the traditional purchase arrangement for residential solar, another model could prove highly attractive. In this approach, IPPs or renewables companies do the installation, lease the space from the homeowner in return for a capped amount of electricity, and then wheel the balance back to Eskom.

We could even take this a step further and install wind generation on top of the solar farms on rooftops, adding another element to the capacity generation without increasing the need for more land to be tied up in power generation. A software application can be developed to facilitate where property owners can list their rooftops or land for lease and where IPPs, Engineering Procurement Construction companies (EPCs) and rooftop solar or wind installers can ‘buy’ that space to generate electricity.

The right mix of flexibility and skills

Instead of leasing land and taking up space, we can make use of real estate that is already being used for other purposes. This also opens up solar generation to the Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME) market to assist IPPs with installations and maintenance. In turn, this creates employment opportunities, but since they are project based, permanent employment is not the answer.

A TES provider can deliver the flexible workforce required to meet fluctuating demand and scale up for new projects, while ensuring that all staff have the relevant skills and experience for the job. A reputable TES partner will also ensure that the essential health and safety component is taken care of, including certifications for working at heights and the correct safety harnessing and equipment. A TES provider has the expert understanding of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) and will provide training and upskilling when required. They are able to offer a one stop shop service for both smaller business and start-ups as well as at scale, facilitating the rapid deployment of new solar power generation capability.

A view to the future

The reality we face is that we need new ways of generating power, but we also need to ensure that we have sustainable solutions for the future of the country. Using up all of our free land for solar farms is not a viable long-term answer, so we need to look to innovative solutions to solve our power crisis. Changing the way we approach power now will help to mitigate our energy crisis, move us forward in terms of reducing carbon emissions, and create employment, all of which are essential for a sustainable future.

Viren Sookhun is the managing director at Oxyon.

Innovation and skills needed to help South Africa reach full solar generation potential

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