On my recent visit to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, I was rather surprised that many retail outlets and flea markets were well stocked with solar power products such as panels, inverters and regulators. As I found out later, this was because a growing number of residents were turning to alternatives sources of electricity such as diesel generators and solar power to escape the rampant load shedding that the national utility ZESA was carrying out. Zimbabwe has been in economic turmoil for over a decade now and although conditions have begun to stabilize due to dollarization, the crippling power shortages that were caused by the country’s economic problems still persist.
After a couple of days, egged on by the despair of having to struggle through the power cuts, I decided to have solar power installed at my home. Getting the materials was fairly easy, thanks to the abundance of these products, as mentioned earlier. However, what became very clear as I went about getting the required products was how little retailers knew about the products they were selling. None of the shops I went to had anyone to do the installation. After a short discussion with one of the sales people, I decided to take a risk and buy the products I would need for my system. This included a 100w solar panel, 330 AC to DC inverter, a solar battery and a 10metre cable, all at a total cost of $400. Unfortunately, even with these products, I was no closer to having a fully functional solar power system.
To install the system, my first task the following day was to get the solar panel secured on the roof. I approached a welder who lived a couple of blocks from my home and after some intense negotiation, he agreed to make a stand for the solar panel and to have it on the roof by the end of the day. As the welder went about doing his work, I decided to visit a neighbour who had already set up a solar power system at his house, to get advice on how to go about completing my installation. He gave me a ‘crash course’ on how he had installed his system and some ‘do’s and don’ts’. Equipped with this knowledge, and with the assistance of an electrician, we soon had all the connections at my home in place. Later that day, the welder completed his job and soon the solar panel was resting on the roof. We made the final connections between the solar panel and the inverter. Everything was finally done and the moment of truth had arrived. I went over to the inverter and flicked the switch on. The green light, indicating that the battery was charging, went on. Mission accomplished!
Although this was a simple off-grid solar power system in one household and unlike the larger renewable energy projects being pursued in South Africa, to me, this whole experience highlighted the importance of skills development to support the deployment of renewable technologies. Although it all worked out in the end, I still had to struggle to find the right people to help me with the installation. According to the New Growth Path, it is estimated that 300 000 direct jobs will be created by 2020 through the greening of the South Africa economy, with 80 000 of these jobs in manufacturing and the rest in construction, maintenance and operations (1). The push for localisation as the country shifts towards more renewable sources of energy and the emphasis on skills transfer in the current Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement programme (REIPPP) will ensure that some of the jobs created in the industry will be available to South Africans. The extent to which the unemployed will be absorbed by these jobs will depend a lot on whether or not they possess the skills required by the industry. A wide range of skills such as engineering, management, measuring and verification, construction would be needed. While all skills levels would be required, the existing skills shortages in the South African labour market would pose a major challenge. A study commissioned by the Department of Labour in 2008 found that Further Education and Training and Higher Education institutions were not producing sufficient numbers of graduates with qualifications that would be required by the renewable energy industry (2). While importing skills will be necessary at this early stage of the industry, skills development will be essential in ensuring that South Africans are able to take up opportunities provided by the growth of the renewable energy industry.
1. South African Government, 2010. The new growth path: The Framework. http://www.info.gov.za/aboutgovt/programmes/new-growth-path/index.html
2. DOL (Department of Labour), 2008. Projected skills demand and supply for the electrical energy sector. Sector Report for the HSRC