Picture:REUTERS/FABIAN ANDRES CAMBERO
Picture:REUTERS/FABIAN ANDRES CAMBERO

For too long, discussions over the transition to a low-carbon economy have largely taken place in the abstract. The time for introspection is over.

The SA Photovoltaic Industry Association wholeheartedly welcomes the statement by mineral resources and energy minister Gwede Mantashe that SA’s shift from a high-carbon to a low-carbon economy needs to be both just and systematic.

As a sector, we recognise that there needs to be a step change in how we approach this transition, and it needs to be meaningful. It is for representatives of the renewable energy sector to take the lead and proactively reach out to address the challenges we all face. We need to get on the front foot. There are many challenges ahead, but they are not insurmountable.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) has proven successful in attracting much-needed foreign investment to the country and injecting impetus into getting the sector off the ground. To date, investment, largely foreign, has played a crucial role in driving forward the renewables sector in SA.

The Renewable Energy Independent Power Procurement Programme (REIPPP) has been one of the most successful attracters of investment to SA, raising R209bn so far — 24% of which is foreign direct investment.

There is much to be positive about, with local ownership objectives being met and exceeded. In fact, BEE shareholding across all REIPPP projects is 33%, and SA shareholding is 52% (R31.4bn) of total equity (R60.9bn). This is substantially more than the 40% requirement.

Broad-based black participation is also secured across the value chain through community participation, including in engineering, procurement, construction, operations and maintenance contractors, where black ownership amounts to 21%.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels now. In fact, widespread support for the transition to a low-carbon economy will only come if we do more. The IRP provides for an increase of the nation’s total electricity production capacity to 77,834MW by 2030. The majority of that increase is set to come from renewable sources. Some 52,104MW will be from solar photovoltaic (PV), wind and other renewable sources.

This is a welcome ambition and the solar PV industry looks forward to playing its part in enabling this transition. Progress towards this goal will only be achieved if all arms of the economy play to their strengths and play together. The primary focus will be to ensure communities affected by this transition have a voice in managing the change.

Local communities have already benefited from more than R1bn spent by IPPs on education such as upskilling teachers, providing extra teachers and classrooms, and giving 600 bursaries to students from disadvantaged communities.

There has also been much-needed provision of health facilities and medical staff; social welfare, such as feeding schemes, support to old age homes and early childhood development; and support to and establishment of more than 1,000 small enterprises.

Our economy is filled with entrepreneurial, can-do individuals who we need to bring into the renewables sector and allow their influence to be felt

Local community ownership is structured through the establishment of community trusts. Qualifying communities will receive R27.1bn net income, that is dividends, from their shareholding over the 20-year life of these committed projects.

But this is not enough. The role of players in the renewables sector needs to be transformational. We must address the very pressing need to include, empower and employ marginalised communities and individuals.

We need to create a space that is welcoming of diversity and dissenting voices, because only then will we understand the true impact these changes will have and how we can best mitigate the negative consequences.

Our economy is filled with entrepreneurial, can-do individuals who we need to bring into the renewables sector and allow their influence to be felt as we create an industry that uplifts and empowers.

The time is now for black South Africans to be meaningfully involved in the energy sector and we need to make sure we facilitate a transition that brings real benefits to marginalised communities. We need innovative institutional and financial arrangements coupled with inclusive strategic planning that will turn our ambitions into a reality.

Resources are required from the government, but real investment and interventions from SA businesses will be more important than ever if we are to unlock the resources required to advance the energy transition.

We should all recognise the potential for significant political and socio-economic consequences if we mishandle the move away from fossil fuels. Our aim is that, in co-ordination with the government, we will be a proactive power for good, working to facilitate financial support, training and community planning to ensure we mitigate the impact on people affected.

We need to stop the talk and move to a space where we are building knowledge, building capacity and creating solutions that will drive a move to a zero-carbon economy. In doing this we will ensure environmental sustainability, meaningful work, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty.

• Govender is COO of the SA Photovoltaic Industry Association.

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