• Sustainable development

    Tertiary institutions across South Africa are increasingly offering courses and degrees to answer a growing demand for qualified technicians in the renewable energy sector.

    Sustainable development

    At the foot of Africa, a world-class wind training facility is preparing students from mostly rural areas to become qualified wind-turbine service technicians (WTSTs). ‘It’s a specialised, extremely well-paid profession,’ says Naim Rassool, director of the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (SARETEC). ‘These are scarce skills, which are sought-after worldwide. For example, Europe has a shortage of 4 000 wind technicians.’

    The facility at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology is the first such centre in South Africa and one of only two with a live nacelle (the engine that sits on top of a wind turbine) in the southern hemisphere – the other one being in Brazil.

    In another first for South Africa, SARETEC piloted its WTST programme, supported by the Sector Training Authority for Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services (merSETA), in February 2016. The seven-month course incorporates two months of in-service training at a wind farm. The third intake of students is about to graduate in August. In addition to a high level of fitness and the ability to work at height in all weather conditions, candidates for this newly developed occupation need artisan qualifications (NQF level 4) as either electricians; mechatronic technicians; fitter and turners; or a related national diploma. Once qualified as WTSTs (NQF level 5), they will be able to inspect, diagnose and maintain, set up, adjust or repair wind turbines.

    On average, one technician is responsible for six wind turbines, according to AltGen, a South Africa/Kenya-based company that specialises in renewable energy consulting and recruitment. The firm’s widely quoted 2014 report on renewable energy and efficiency career pathways, and the skills gap anticipates the number of permanently employed WTSTs required in South Africa after the final bidding round of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement (REIPPP) programme to be around the 500 mark.

    South Africa’s move towards renewable energy is expected to create a boom in energy jobs and some new occupations. At the same time, the country will also need oil and gas engineers and related skills for the exploration of oil reserves on the West Coast and shale gas in the Karoo. The trend for increased energy efficiency (which includes technologies such as heat pumps, solar water heaters and green buildings) will create further employment with novel skill sets, not only in R&D but also in new career fields such as energy auditing. Other examples of ‘green collar’ jobs include carbon consultant; energy-efficiency specialist; green building engineer; sustainability co-ordinator; smart-grid engineer; and retro-commissioning engineer.

    In addition to onshore wind energy, which accounts for more than half of the total REIPPP megawatt capacity, most of the renewable-energy skills required will be in solar PV with further employment in concentrated solar power, landfill gas, biofuels, and small hydro. AltGen forecasts that by 2030, South Africa will feature ‘a conservative total of 272 797 person years (PY) per megawatt of renewable energy of employment opportunities in the REIPPP alone, and nearly 50% of these (118 462 PY) could be in the Northern Cape. Based on the outcomes of the model, at least 30% to 50% of these are operating and maintenance jobs and therefore sustainable and long term.’

    In plain English, this means 272 797 jobs if one PY equals one job. However, the Department of Energy’s (DoE) report on the state of renewable energy in South Africa says: ‘Estimates for job creation through the renewable-energy sector vary from 36 400 new direct jobs to 78 000 – and up to 462 000, depending on the time frame and level of renewable energy and energy-efficient technology penetration.’

    Most of these jobs require a semi-skilled to skilled workforce, says AltGen. ‘The growing [renewable energy] industry aligns with South Africa’s need to train artisans, as this study shows that mid-level skills (semi-skilled and skilled) and rural skills to be more significant and in more demand than the highly skilled.

    This is where technical and vocational education and training colleges come in, as well as renewable energy companies or original equipment manufacturers that train in-house. Industry insiders argue that it is relatively easy to upskill artisans from a parallel industry in renewable energy.

    For instance, SARETEC offers short courses in solar PV installation for qualified electricians or those already working in the field. This will assist them in attaining the PV GreenCard, which was launched in May by the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association to ensure quality standards in rooftop PV. Solar installers must pass theoretical and practical tests to join the certified installer database for the PV GreenCard, which is being positioned as a national standardised ‘seal of approval’ for small-scale PV installations up to 100 kWp. SARETEC also plans to introduce short courses and workshops for technicians in the fields of energy efficiency, solar thermal and biogas.

    While the centre’s wind-training programme has been in the news, it’s been quiet around another state-driven training facility, the Renewable Energy Centre of Excellence in Upington, Northern Cape. The centre was launched in August 2014 as a platform for innovation and skills development in renewables. Meanwhile, the University of the Witwatersrand – the country’s only tertiary institution that offers a dedicated Masters programme in oil and gas engineering – is introducing an MSc (engineering) in clean energy and sustainable technologies in 2018.

    ‘We’re very excited about this new one-year programme as it complements our oil and gas programme and fills a need in the market,’ says Herman Potgieter, head of the Wits School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering. ‘It’s broader than renewable energy such as wind, solar and hydroelectric power because we’re also looking at cleaner ways of using oil, gas and coal.’

    He explains that the course consists of a research project and a selection of modules that deal, for example, with processes for carbon capture in coal power plants. Other modules look at underground coal gasification to reduce atmospheric pollution and at optimising power distribution to reduce the electricity that is lost during transfer.

    Further south at Stellenbosch University, the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies offers postgrad programmes (coursework- or research-based Masters as well as doctoral degrees) across all disciplines. The course modules include sustainable development; renewable-energy systems; renewable energy policy and finance; solar, wind, hydro and ocean; and bioenergy.

    The University of Cape Town’s multi-disciplinary Energy Research Centre offers two Masters programmes – an MSc in sustainable energy engineering and an MPhil in energy and development studies. Short courses are also run by various departments, for example, the UCT Faculty of Law, which in April held an executive course on energy law in South Africa, with a focus on renewable energy.

    At Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth, the Centre for Energy Research comprises energy research from three faculties, namely science; business and economic sciences; and engineering, built environment and information technology. It’s the centre’s mission to produce graduates skilled in the energy field and to perform strategic and competitive research.

    In Potchefstroom, North-West University’s Renewable Energy Research and Development at the engineering faculty is known for its cutting-edge technology innovation. Among others, it hosts the Hydrogen South Africa Infrastructure Centre of Competence, which is developing applications and solutions for hydrogen production, storage and use specifically in an African context.

    The University of Pretoria’s Centre for New Energy Studies within the electrical engineering department is a leader in the field of energy optimisation, management and standardisation. The centre focuses equally on theoretical and practical research in order to produce academic results as well as develop industrial applications. Since 2008, it’s also been home to the Energy Efficiency and Demand-side Management Hub whose state-funded postgraduate programme strives to generate high-quality Masters and doctoral graduates who can meet the needs of an expanding and sustainable energy industry.

    Eskom also has a well-co-ordinated energy research programme for fossil fuels and renewables. However, training and skills development for wind, rooftop PV and hydro installations are dealt with within the normal business support services context, according to the parastatal’s media desk.

    ‘If, in future, Eskom grows its renewable energy installations, provided the DoE-led integrated resource plan permits, Eskom will at that stage train and develop the skills that will be required to operate and maintain those specific power plants.’

    In the meantime, Eskom’s delay in signing the independent power purchase agreements is jeopardising South Africa’s renewables training and recruitment.

    ‘SARETEC had already secured funding for the fourth intake of wind-turbine service technicians in August 2017, but the delays have forced us to cancel this intake,’ says Rassool. ‘We only train based on industry demands. It’s bleak, because we have a world-class facility and can train technicians accepted at global wind industry standards but are battling to place our current intake, which consists of individuals from rural areas, many of them female.’

    Nevertheless, in the long run, he’s optimistic about green job prospects, because renewable energy is a ‘no-brainer’ for South Africa. The only question is how soon it will happen.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images, SARETEC