Picture: 123RF/EVGENI BISHTOK
Picture: 123RF/EVGENI BISHTOK

Thomas Edison was a visionary inventor who thought years ahead of his time. During 1878 and 1880 he and his team of researchers tested more than3,000 designs for the light bulb. In 1879, Edison filed a patent for an electric lamp with a carbon filament and changed the way we see at night forever.

He managed to wield the power of electricity into an object that can fit into the palm of an adult’s hand. The same power that can slice a tree in two during an electrical thunderstorm was tamed and used for the benefit of mankind.

What if he had stopped, at idea number one?

A century later, in 1979, another visionary — but not an inventor ¯ had 32 solar panels installed on the White House roof. The panels were the test of a vision to begin to get the world to counter the effects of global warming. Former US president Jimmy Carter believed mankind could harness the power of the sun and begin to produce clean energy, thereby reversing the effects of the damage to the environment.

He was ridiculed. Even Donald Regan, president Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, described the White House solar panels as “just a joke”. When Carter left office, Reagan removed the panels in 1986, ending the clean energy vision Carter had for the US to lead the world in the innovation of renewable energy.

More than two decades later, former president Barack Obama put new solar panels back on the roof of the White House and expanded funding for clean energy development. One can’t help but wonder, what if Carter had not been stopped at idea number one?

Carter had other accomplishments during his presidential term that changed the status quo through the power of faith and determination, as written about in Jonathan Alter’s biography, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life. Carter ended his predecessor, Richard Nixon’s, two-China policy (which preferred Taiwan) and helped set up bilateral relations for what is currently the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

What Edison and Carter did, and what Starace and hopefully De Ruyter can do, is introduce ideas and solutions that challenge the perceived limits of what is possible and good in the energy sector

In addition, he successfully negotiated the Camp David Accord in 1978, which has been recognised as the most successful peace treaty since the end of World War 2.

He managed to secure peace between two nations that had been in discord with each other for centuries: Israel and Egypt. Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime diplomat, Averell Harriman said: “What he has done with the Middle East is one of the most extraordinary things any president in history has ever accomplished.”

Francesco Starace, CEO of Europe’s biggest utility, is an energy visionary for our times. He has doubled Enel’s market value since he took over the helm in 2014 and it is now as big as an oil giant. According to the November edition of the Economist, “few companies match Italy’s biggest utility, Enel, in putting its money where its mouth is. On November 24 Starace unveiled plans to invest €160bn by 2030 to virtually triple its renewable energy capacity to 120GW and transform grids in Europe and Latin America to prepare for an all-electric future”.

Starace has not just stopped at the idea of renewable energy, he is putting the company’s capital behind this vision of the future.

Visionary leaders have tenacity and courage that defies insurmountable challenges to make a way. I think we have one such visionary leader in André de Ruyter. The Eskom CEO could beat the enormous odds stacked against him if he keeps going with his vision to transform what currently poses the biggest risk to our fiscus. De Ruyter recently told Business Day: “We are definitely making progress and it’s pleasing to see the green shoots of a recovery starting to emerge.”

He believes in the possibility of a turnaround for Eskom, he believes that restructuring our electricity giant can work, and he is backing that belief with action that goes beyond just the good idea of a renewable future. By acquiring and purchasing power from renewable energy producers, as an off-taker Eskom is supporting the growth of the green power-producing industry in SA. Let’s not stop De Ruyter at idea number one.

What Edison and Carter did, and what Starace and hopefully De Ruyter can do, is introduce ideas and solutions that challenge the perceived limits of what is possible and good in the energy sector. In true Nelson Mandela style, they have and are shifting the realities of what we believe to be possible. As Mandela once said: “Everything seems impossible until it is done.”

If there were no trailblazers and visionaries among us such as Edison and Carter and Starace and De Ruyter, who don’t conform to the status quo but seek to bring change to shape future generations for the better, our societies would be much poorer. Here’s to the visionaries among us.

• Nott is the head of the Africa practice at Norton Rose Fulbright and specialises in energy deals.

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