South Africa is betting big on solar and wind – but there’s a big problem

 ·5 Nov 2022

While the renewable energy sector already provides thousands of jobs in South Africa, many more are available, says renewable energy developer Enel.

However, the skills required for these jobs are either in short supply or the skills and qualifications required are available, but experience in the renewables industry is lacking.

There is a general shortage of skills in the science, engineering, maths and technology (STEM) fields in South Africa, the group said.

“The renewable energy industry needs electrical engineers, operations and maintenance managers and mechanical technicians. Skills in manufacturing, assembly and installation are also needed.

“And since renewable energy plants are also businesses, they require skills in sales, marketing, finance and general business operations as well.”

To tackle the problem of skills, Asante Phiri, Head of O&M Southern Africa at Enel Green Power South Africa (EGP RSA), said South Africa needs to encourage the youth to take up careers in STEM-related fields.

He said that students are still shying away from these subjects due to a perception that they’re difficult subjects. Although degrees in these fields are challenging, they can be achieved and are necessary to follow careers in renewable energy and to take up the many employment opportunities available.

The company noted that some schools in the communities it operates do not offer maths and science as subjects, adding that maths literacy will not cut it for careers in the field of renewables.

Enel said that it is trying to meet the skills crisis in the sector head-on by offering bursaries to university students and providing financial support to young learners from FET colleges who are studying N3, N4 and N5 levels in mechanical or electrical engineering.

“This is so that they may be equipped to take up careers in these fields and be able to apply for work opportunities at Enel’s renewable energy plants,” it said.

Students who have studied to become artisans – for example, technicians, electricians, mechanical fitters, and others – as well as those who have studied engineering as a science, are eligible to work at renewable energy plants, it said.

“The sector also needs business-related skills, so students with qualifications in sales and marketing, finance, legal services, and so on, can apply for work opportunities in the business areas of renewable energy.”

EGP RSA has also begun funding learners at entry level, it said. Learners who don’t have a matric but are interested in engineering can apply to Enel’s community development program, which could fund them at N3 level.

Reskilling is needed

The Renewable Energy Solutions for Africa (RES4Africa) foundation has instituted a programme called the Reskilling Lab, which EGP RSA is participating in together with other companies.

The aim of the programme is to address one of the big challenges faced by the energy sector. South Africa has numerous coal-fired power stations, and this is one of the contributors to employment within the mining industry.

“The problem is, if the country changes its energy mix by incorporating a larger percentage of renewable energy, what happens to the employees that are working within the coal sector and within the value chain in the coal power plants?”

The Reskilling Lab aims to address this by reskilling employees from the coal-based power plants value chain to be able to take up jobs within the renewable energy sector and within the new value chain for the renewable energy industry.

One of its objectives is to build training platforms that address the current skills gap between current skills and what is needed in the renewable energy industry.

The Reskilling Lab also looks at creating bases to make reskilling an asset for local communities, ensuring they’re financially sustainable and potentially scalable.

“While a skills gap exists in the country and in the renewable energy sector, much is being done to address this. With financial aid, educational support, and skills development programmes constantly being instituted, it is hopeful that the skills gap will continue to shrink and that new job opportunities will become available to the many unemployed in the country,” Enel said.

Read: Eskom is converting one of its oldest power stations into a major new solar and wind energy project

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