Skills needed to meet the demands of the future energy sector: South Africa not ready

  • “I am inspired, meet me at the top!” sounded the war cry of the Galactic Einsteins when they concluded their presentation at the Changemakers Junior Green Investment Pitch Session at the Enlit Africa conference and exhibition, which gathered energy, water and power sector stakeholders across the continent at the CTICC in Cape Town this week.

The large team of 16 learners, who hail from Zwelethemba High School in Worcester in the Western Cape, showcased and explained their proposed smart electronic distribution system to protect the local community, particularly children, from the hazards and dangers of illegal connections in informal settlements. This includes protecting people from open hanging wires, fires that can start after loadshedding and energy slavery. The team will soon compete in the US Robotics Open Tournament in Massachusetts.

Changemakers bigger and better

Candice Moodley, Corporate Services Executive at Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority (EWSETA), surprised the Einsteins with a R10 000 donation towards their travel expenses. She said EWSETA was hoping to make the Changemakers programme “bigger and better” to support learners to grow South African skills for the demands of the future.

“The new technologies that are brought in to address our energy crisis, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency systems and technologies, a lot of those technologies are not from South Africa, they’re brought into South Africa from either Europe or America, so we don’t necessarily have the skills when it comes to operating or maintaining those systems and we have the skills coming in from overseas, and we are not building our skills set here in South Africa.”

She explained that EWSETA wants to support the youth and the innovation being driven by the youth a lot more, particularly at tertiary level with bursaries for those who get into university and technical colleges. “EWSETA is also working very closely with secondary level education to provide funding and various opportunities and we really and truly want to support projects like this in whatever way we can.”

She reminded the learners that they would need STEM subjects for a career in the energy and water sectors. “If you don’t take maths and science, your career path is pretty limited.”

“People of the right skills”

During the closing session of Enlit Africa on Thursday, the minister in the presidency responsible for electricity Dr Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, provided a detailed presentation of the government’s Energy Action Plan, the key milestones to achieve and the main challenges faced by Eskom, one of which he said was the “the haemorrhaging of skills.”

He explained: “For Eskom to operate a Kusile or a Medupi, including the flue gas desulphurisation unit, the component that is meant to reduce the amount of sulphur content before we release this into the atmosphere, the unit at Kusile is the only existing one on the African continent. No one else has that expertise, except the original manufacturer, and the people learning it on the job.”

“So it is important that we are able to build the scarce skills profiles and be able to attract people of the right skills if you give them the necessary incentive.”

He added: “It is important that we work with the private sector, those who’ve got the knowhow and experience, including working with the original equipment manufacturers that they get to be embedded in the power stations and provide the necessary support for the station managers to address that.”

Eskom showcasing micro grids

The event also provided some positive feedback about some of the work that Eskom is doing in the development of solar micro grids and the upskilling of former coal-fired power station staff to work in the renewable space. One of Eskom’s containerised micro grids was part of the Enlit Africa exhibition.

Micro grids are used by Eskom as a solution to supplying green power where there are constrained networks, in rural and remote areas, to improve reliability, or as an alternative to avoid costly infrastructure. Micro grids can be a customer-owned, partnership-owned, or an Eskom-owned site.

In a discussion on “The role of the power sector and government in accelerating energy access,” Nick Singh, smart grid CoE manager at Eskom’s Research Testing & Development, said all the technology of the micro grid had been developed inhouse by the utility, “100% localisation, and we can now use a cookie cutter approach.”

He explained that Eskom was using a multi-faceted approach. “We have been on this journey since 2014, we have developed many micro grid projects. But Eskom cannot only go into a community and just provide electricity, we also have to create the infrastructure and other services to allow social growth.”

He said that their containerised micro grids could be deployed very fast, within three days, and that a 62 KW unit could power 50 houses.

“Our JET journey”

“Eskom has now embarked on this just energy transition, our JET journey,” Singh explained, “and a lot of funding has been provided for this initiative. The Komati power station has been earmarked as the first decommissioned power station to be repurposed for renewables.”

“There is now a micro grid assembly facility at Komati and we can produce up to 1,000 microgrids per year, it’s a very effective assembly line, while creating jobs and upskilling. We have an arrangement with CPUT for training, all while still stimulating the economy. While you are taking away the traditional coal-fired power station, you are still utilising the people in the community and the workers and bridge that gap with training.”

SANEA energy skills roadmap

“We are in crisis as an energy sector and I’m not sure that we are paying enough attention to the skills we need to get us out of that crisis,” said Wendy Poulton of the South African National Energy Association (SANEA) about the energy skills roadmap that the organisation published earlier this year.

“We focus far too much on technical skills, rather than some of the other skills that we need. The public sector also needs to go more into future areas. The decentralisation, automation and IA trends are resulting in a shift in the type and vocation of jobs, and this is very seldom looked at when we are designing skills programmes. Emerging energy markets are driving new types of jobs, for example, we are getting trading, municipalities are now going to have to wheel and trade with embedded generators in their areas. Are they skilled up to do that or will they just give it to the engineer and not be able to train him?

Retention will be a huge issue

She added that consideration also needs to be given to transversal skills. “We have an infrastructure programme. How are we making sure that if in renewables, most of the new jobs are in construction and not in operations, that those construction skills also can be applicable to road and railway building, other kinds of skills, so that you don’t have this boom and bust, such as when Eskom didn’t sign IPP agreements, no plants were built, and all the people that had been trained suddenly didn’t have a job. What are we doing at a national level to make sure that we think about those things and are able to transfer these skills across various infrastructure programmes?

“On the education side, there is adequate supply, but because we don’t know how much the volume is going to increase, it is difficult to say if they are going to be able to cope with it. For example, we do have programmes that provide engineers that can build renewable energy plants, but if you think about it, we have to have renewable energy to help us deal with our current crisis, plus replace all our coal plants, or at least a large proportion of it, plus do green hydrogen.

“When are those skills going to be needed and do we then have enough people, given that the whole world is going towards renewables and they are poaching people from everywhere to go and work in Europe and America, so retention is also going to be a huge issue.”

Skills missing in JET discussion

Aradhna Pandarum, of the Energy Centre of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) feels that the topic of skills and training is “significantly lacking in the just energy transition discussion.”

“If we look at the Draft Just Energy Transition Investment Plan that is currently out for review, it says that we are going to spend ZAR 1.5 trillion in the next five years for the energy transition, specifically focusing on the decarbonisation of the electricity sector, and the grid that is relating to that, looking at electric vehicles and the manufacturing of electric vehicles and trying to transition our current ICE vehicles to electric vehicles and export such vehicles. The last component is green hydrogen, which is said to have a significant impact on decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors.

“We don’t have the skills”

She continues: “However, out of that ZAR 1.5 trillion, only 1% is actually allocated to skills development. If we look at the Renewable Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), it has been developed over 10 years now, we have been developing renewable technologies for over 10 years in the country. But, if we look at the current local capacity of doing that in South Africa without private, external private sector investment, we can’t actually do that, because we don’t have the skills to do it. We are importing skills to develop those some of those projects and parts of the value chains. So this is why we need to significantly focus on the skills development that is required for technologies.”

Author: Bryan Groenendaal

About Enlit Africa

Enlit Africa (formerly African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa) is Africa’s leading exhibition and conference, gathering the power and energy industry’s most influential professionals and decision makers from across the continent for three days of relevant, accredited technical and strategic conference seminars, valuable networking opportunities and access to world-class products and solutions.

 

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