• Expert ability

    Government projects and growing investment in renewables are providing careers for a new generation of the continent’s workers

    Expert ability

    Things are finally happening for renewable energy skills and job creation in Atlantis, South Africa, the special economic zone (SEZ) for green technologies that was officially launched in late 2018, 60 km up the West Coast from Cape Town. At Spanish firm Gestamp Renewable Industries (GRI), local renewable energy professionals are currently involved in manufacturing and assembling sections of wind-turbine towers. Some of these SEZ-made turbine parts will assist in powering the 140 MW Kangnas wind farm in the Northern Cape province, generating enough clean energy to power up to 120 000 homes.

    In addition, the South African workforce of GRI manufactured most of the wind-turbine tower sections at Loeriesfontein and Khobab wind farms (also in the Northern Cape), which took the local content commitments of the two independent power producers beyond 40% of the total project value.

    In Atlantis, additional manpower is required to transport the wind-tower sections individually by road to the remote wind farms on abnormal load trailers (the longest measuring almost 58m in combined length).

    ‘GRI’s South African wind-tower company is 25% owned by local black shareholders, while their 250 or so employees have benefited from skills transfer, some seeing training and experience in Spain and the US, and bringing their skills back to the community,’ says Francis Jackson, SEZ project executive at GreenCape, the NPO that was formed to support the growth of the local green economy.

    This is important, as an increasing number of countries derive socio-economic benefits from renewable energy – although employment remains highly concentrated in a few countries such as China, Brazil, the US, India, Germany and Japan, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Worldwide, the number of renew-able energy jobs grew by 5.3% to 10.3 million from 2016 to 2017, with China accounting for nearly half (43%) of these

    In Africa as a whole, employment in the renewable energy sector continues to be limited but the potential for off-grid jobs is high, particularly as energy access improves and domestic supply chain capacities are developed, states IRENA. New business models such as pay-as-you-go for solar PV home systems provide new opportunities for employment and upskilling. ‘As growing numbers of panels are sold, employment is generated in segments of the supply chain, especially in sales and distribution, installation and O&M,’ according to the agency.

    One such pay-as-you-go company is BBOXX, which is active in 12 countries (including Rwanda, Kenya, Togo, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and the DRC) and has the ambition to transform lives through the provision of affordable, reliable and clean energy and other modern utilities. ‘Many of the skills we require don’t exist in the places we work’, says the company in an online post. It has, therefore, established the BBOXX Academy to formally develop employees in areas as diverse as customer service, digital skills and technical know-how. ‘This is how we ensure that our distributed workforce has the necessary knowledge and skills to do their jobs effectively,’ according to the company. ‘The solar revolution will only be possible with a capable, passionate and empowered workforce.’

    In some African nations, pay-as-you-go business models are supported by the removal of import tariffs and other taxes or fees on solar PV panels and other components, says IRENA. In South Africa, the government has created SEZs as an economic stimulus, offering preferential 15% corporate tax, employment tax incentives and a tax allowance that supports capital investment and training, among other things.

    The Atlantis SEZ was initially slow to get off the ground but is now gaining momentum. It has already created more than 312 jobs and attracted ZAR680 million in green technology investments, with the largest chunk of this going towards renewable energy. GRI has invested ZAR300 million; while Resolux, a wind-tower internals company, has invested ZAR25 million; and Iconic Gases, an acetylene gas manufacturer planning to supply the renewable energy components value chain, is due to invest ZAR20 million.

    According to GreenCape, over the next 20 years the zone is likely to attract ZAR3.7 billion of investment by manufacturers of wind blades, smart meters, batteries, wind turbines, solar water heaters, solar PV, and other players in the waste, agri-processing, water technology, gas and chemicals value chains. If these investments are realised, they could create nearly 3 000 job opportunities by 2030.

    These investments show how renewable energy manufacturing initiatives attract larger ecosystems around them, involving not only specialist suppliers and contractors but also training facilities.

    West Coast College, a local technical vocational education and training college, has for example, been formally recognised by the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association to provide solar PV installer training. And in November 2018, the country’s flagship renewable energy training facility, the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (Saretec) was officially launched at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to ‘expedite specialised industry-related and accredited training for the entire renewable energy industry, including short courses and workshops’. In addition to its formal programme for wind-turbine technicians, Saretec offers training for technicians in solar PV, energy efficiency and biogas/biomass.

    Renewable energy manufacturing initiatives attract larger ecosystems around them, including training facilities

    This corresponds with the developments in Atlantis, where the zone’s first biomass start-up is going into production. Mzansi Bio Energy, trading as Ukubuya, will convert invasive alien vegetation such as red gum and black wattle into biomass briquettes.

    ‘The briquettes provide a clean burning fuel, without any toxic byproducts,’ says Colyn Oldham, director of Ukubuya. ‘Because they are classified as carbon neutral, our target market is large food-processing companies wanting to reduce their carbon footprint by using bio-energy for their industrial boilers.’

    In the factory, this will create up to 25 new jobs at Ukubuya, mostly for semi-skilled machine operators and a handful of supervisors. However, Oldham says the real opportunity for job creation lies in harvesting, where government programmes such as Working for Water are already providing employment for jobless and marginalised South Africans, including youth, women and the disabled, in eradicating invasive alien vegetation

    ‘There are reportedly about 100 000 tons of invasive alien vegetation that need to be cleared from the river beds of the Breede and Berg river valleys,’ he says. ‘Ukubuya has the potential to generate an income for a large number of small teams of low-skilled people by creating a market for the invasive plants they cut down. The cleared material currently goes to waste. Occasionally farmers use it as mulch, but we can make it worthwhile for the harvesters. By providing a market for the alien species, we ensure that the clearing of river systems remains a viable operation, helping to improve groundwater quality as well as contribute towards a reduction in carbon emissions.’

    The expected investments in greentech and renewable energy manufacturing will require a wide range of technical competencies, specifically artisans and tradesmen, but also supervisors as well as semi-skilled labour, according to Ursula Wellmann, Atlantis SEZ skills and stakeholder manager. ‘The local community is well positioned to supply the majority of the positions, but many specialist jobs required in the manufacture of green technology and artisan positions often cannot be filled with the local supply.’

    Skilled technical and managerial positions are also often difficult to fill. Against this backdrop, the African Energy Leadership Centre (AELC) at Wits Business School introduced a Master’s degree and a postgraduate diploma in energy leadership in January. ‘The curricula will provide candidates with a solid foundation in all aspects of energy and energy management to help develop a new generation of decisive, effective and solutions-oriented leaders that the sector so badly needs,’ says AELC director Rod Crompton. Everything from the exponential technological change and innovation to the global shift to cleaner energy is covered in the programmes.

    While Crompton refers to the African energy sector as ‘an exciting place to be’, efforts are under way to instil this feeling in younger learners. Moneyweb says Kenya is looking into developing solar-specific curricula in its education system to build the capacity the country needs. In Gambia, renewable energy entrepreneurship has reportedly been introduced into the curriculum of senior secondary schools as well as vocational, tertiary and higher education institutions to support the government’s efforts in promoting renewable energy for national development.

    In South Africa, the annual Atlantis Renewable Energy Challenge aims to raise awareness for renewable energy careers among learners. ‘Young people often lack adequate information or knowledge to make suitable career choices,’ says Wellmann. ‘The challenge showcases learner imagination and creativity through their understanding and interpretation of renewable energy.’

    It will take a concerted drive from all renewable energy stakeholders to further develop specialist skills and training facilities, extend government incentives such as the Atlantis SEZ, and spark passion for renewable energy careers to secure the skills that Africa needs for a low-carbon future.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Jotham van Tonder/HMimages