Why South Africa is Primed to Develop Green Energy Practitioners

The renewable energy sector now employs more than 12-million people globally, with projections that this number will grow to 25-million by 2030 and at least 43-million by 2050.

According to the eighth edition of the Renewable Energy and Jobs: Annual Review, released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in October 2021, renewable energy’s ability to create jobs and meet climate goals is now beyond doubt. 

ILO director-general Guy Ryder noted in the report that the potential for renewable energies to generate decent work was a clear indication that “we do not have to choose between environmental sustainability on the one hand, and employment creation on the other. The two can go hand-in-hand”.

While arguments are often put forward that fossil fuel industries create more jobs, a discussion paper on solar energy demands produced by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) shows that an investment of US$1-million in renewable energy and energy efficiency creates 7.49 and 7.72 full-time equivalent jobs respectively, compared to only 2.65 for fossil fuels.

It is a figure US President Joe Biden has paid close attention to. At COP26 in Glasgow last year, Biden announced the US would tackle the climate crisis through the provision of jobs through the manufacture of electric vehicles and transitioning America’s power grid to be cleaner and more environmentally sustainable.

South Africa has also committed itself to reduce its carbon emissions, and through a political declaration with the governments of France, Germany, the UK, the US and Maphosa European Union, an initial amount of $8.5-billion (R131-billion) will be mobilised in the next three- to five years for its efforts to tackle climate change.

When it comes to renewable energies, the main options are solar energy, biomass, wind energy, hydropower and geothermal. Within these, there are more specific areas that differ according to the application and technology used, according to UNESCO.  In other words, the scope for employment opportunities is immense.

Though South Africa still relies heavily on fossil fuels, the government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Programme (REIPPPP) is starting to pay off.

Through the programme, 61 858 job opportunities have been created in the construction and operation of IPPs until the end of September 2021, of which 37 673 new job opportunities were created through solar power projects. 

The UNESCO discussion paper emphasises that the transition to a cleaner world will depend heavily on the development of a workforce that possesses the knowledge, skills and competencies to “render operational all the energy efficiency and renewable technology options available”.

This, it says, will require the need for effective training to meet the demand for what it calls “green-collar” professionals, and particularly for specialists with advanced skills like engineers and technicians.

UNESCO believes technical and vocational education and training (TVET) will play a crucial role in the transition, as the skills needed in the provision of sustainable energy will be acquired through it.

In many respects the focus on TVET and its role in renewables could not have come at a more opportune time for South Africa.

In his state of the nation address (SONA) in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that 10 000 TVET college graduates would be offered workplace experience to improve their prospects of finding employment once they conclude their studies.

South African end-to-end online learning solution provider New Leaf Technologies is already working with TVET colleges and the public and private sectors to roll out relevant e-learning programmes. These include those that address environmental social governance (ESG), corporate social responsibility (CSR), corporate shared value (CSV) and compliance like ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation).

“It is important to understand the industry and sector in which professional work is conducted. Having a theory-based aspect to the sustainability or renewable energy sector is important for employees to understand the ins and outs of that industry, from its history and relevance to the various facets of the organisation, like health and safety for example. There could be a lot of compliance training down the line on sustainability,” says New Leaf Technologies co-founder Paul Hanly.

A large portion of South Africa’s green energy effort is on solar power, and with good reason. Solar is a viable option in a country blighted by load-shedding, over and above the fact that it can be used for hot water production, space heating and powering equipment.

The industry value chain relies primarily on the marketing of solar thermal and PV systems and as UNESCO says, this is also where the vast majority of job opportunities can be found, especially for technical occupations where TVET can be particularly relevant.

“The demand for jobs in the sector will exponentially increase but businesses will have to adopt practices that are legally, socially and environmentally compliant,” Hanly says.

“What is essential is that there is upskilling in technical and non-technical competences, for example, plumbers, electricians and roofers etc. These occupations have existed before renewables but new skills are required and organisations will benefit greatly if they enlist these employees in training programmes.”

E-learning and its application is finding favour in South Africa for several reasons.

Because learners are not using their vehicles to get to and from in-person workshops, carbon emissions are greatly reduced.

A further benefit is that the paper trail is greatly reduced as learners are provided digital learning materials by businesses like New Leaf Technologies.

The company even offers a free training cost calculator that gives an indication of how much businesses can save by taking corporate training online.

And of course with Covid-19 now part of people’s lives, there is a need for people to be safe. Online learning removes any potential risks that may be associated with face-to-face learning. “In our view, South Africa has every opportunity to turn around our unemployment rate through effective skills development. We offer over 20 000 courses across a variety of sectors that organisations can select from individually, or our sophisticated multi-media department is able to curate programmes