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People 'n' Issues

SA solar revolution can
boost jobs

Both unemployment and the skills shortage can be alleviated, writes MATTHEW CRUISE of solar market network Hohm Energy.

More and more South African homes and businesses are embracing solar power in a bid to free themselves from the impact of load shedding. If enough people do so and the state properly incentivises them to feed power back into the grid, it could go a long way to alleviating the country’s power crisis. But that’s not the only crisis that solar power could help alleviate.

With the right backing and support, South Africa’s solar revolution could also help address the country’s twin employment and skills shortages. Along with energy, those are two of the most pressing challenges facing South Africa right now. While the unemployment rate has improved slightly over the past few months, it was still the third highest in the world in November 2022. That level of unemployment is only exacerbated by the skills shortage, as it constrains the ability of businesses to grow and add to the economy.

While current skills shortage lists tend to focus on shortages in areas such as auditing, taxation, software development, and data science, there should be no doubt that skills in the solar sector will become increasingly in-demand.

In the first five months of 2022 alone, South Africans spent R2.2-billion on solar PV panels. With worsening load shedding and increased incentives, that number will likely grow exponentially in 2023.

Meeting South Africa’s growing solar demand will require skills beyond those possessed as standard by most ordinary electricians.

Matthew Cruise, Hohm Energy head of business intelligence.

Conventional electricians’ skills are inadequate for solar installations because they require equipment that uses direct current (e.g. battery power) and not alternating current (e.g. the power that comes from a wall socket). Most electricians are trained to work with alternating current, but do not have much experience with direct current, which means they need to be upskilled.

Fortunately, that skills leap is a relatively small one and can be achieved within six to nine months.

As such, this is one area where we can quickly recruit people with transferable skills. Once they have those skills, they could also build their own solar installation businesses, transferring them to others and creating jobs at the same time.”

The solar revolution could also provide an important employment avenue for the thousands of South Africans who leave school every year without any formal skills.

We can begin to incentivise people to begin training immediately after high school to be part of an installation team. It is a low-skill job, but you are learning a great deal on the job and acquiring solar installation skills that could set you up for a viable career in the long term.

However, industry players can’t just sit back and hope that those skills and jobs will appear organically.

As exciting as the South African solar space is right now, it’s vital that the players in the sector work to ensure that there are enough skills and labour to meet current and future demand. With some estimating that South Africa’s installed renewable energy base will hit 40.6GW by 2035, those skills will be in demand for some time. The sector can only benefit by ensuring that there are enough skilled workers and entrepreneurs to meet that demand.

It’s for that reason that Hohm Energy sponsors the Green Solar Academy, which trains and equips solar installers through practical and theoretical training, and the PV GreenCard Programme, which focuses on education, skills development, and training to build installer capacity as well as improve standards development and compliance in line with international best practice.

Rooftop solar is undoubtedly the fastest, most affordable, and greenest way out of South Africa’s energy crisis. But it also represents a massive opportunity to build skills in the country and to help address the unemployment crisis. But grabbing that opportunity requires industry-wide investment and backing of the organisations developing those skills.

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