Leading renewable energy

When it comes to investing in renewable and sustainable energy sources, two things are important: research–and creating a knowledgeable workforce for the future

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That planet earth will eventually run out of fossil-based energy sources such as coal, natural gas and oil, is a given. It is just a matter of time.

How much time? That we can only estimate, but one thing is for sure: if leadership on this planet does not rapidly and increasingly invest in renewable energy sources, Day Zero will come—perhaps even sooner than we expect it. The good news is: over the past few decades, alternative renewable and sustainable energy sources have been discovered and older technologies have been redeveloped to run our world without having to rely on non-renewable sources.

But are we putting enough emphasis on developing human capital in these relatively new fields?

When the National Department of Energy established the Centre For Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2006, the message was clear: Government has committed to develop human capital in this field.

At the helm of the CRSES is its director, Prof Sampson Mamphweli, one of SA’s most resourceful and leading academics in renewable and sustainable energy studies. The centre, which falls under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) since 2007, plays a central role in terms of education and the co-ordination of research activities in this field—at SU as well as in SA in general.

“The CRSES has two focus areas, academia and contract research. We offer post-graduate programmes relevant to renewable energy including Postgraduate Diplomas, Structured Masters, Research Masters. The centre co-ordinates these programmes with the department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, the department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering as well as the School of Public Leadership. The programmes are mostly structured around week-long course modules with assignments and projects that can be executed off campus.

“Individual modules within these programme can also be attended as stand-alone short courses, which are registered for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) points, and allow members of industry to increase their knowledge of specific subjects without the time-commitment required for enrolling in a post-graduate programme,” Prof Mamphweli told Leadership magazine. CRSES further co-ordinates the training of PhD students conducting research on various renewable energy topics.

In terms of knowledge creation and transfer, South Africa has its work cut out. According to Prof Mamphweli, through the training of PhD and Master’s students, and the training of the general public working in the industry, the centre is playing a pivotal role in bridging that gap by offering a variety of short courses, Master’s courses and PhD programmes. As for research, the Energy Research Programme (ERP) is a South African Government research programme, spearheaded by the DST with SU acting as the programme manager. Under the ERP various universities are collaborating with SU, doing work on photovoltaic (PV) research, wind energy research and high temperature solar thermal technologies.

“A number of research products, including the Heliostats patents, have sprouted from the programme. At the moment we are looking at transferring some of these technologies into the market,” he says.

According to Prof Mamphweli, CRSES has also established research chairs. These include the Scatec Solar Chair and Bio-fuels Research Chair, both working closely with the CRSES centre, doing research on solar PV and bio-energy respectively. The Eskom Chair in Power Systems Studies also resides within CRSES.

“On the contract research side of things, the CRSES has dedicated renewable energy research engineers and researchers that provide specialised and customisable services to the industry.

These services include, but are not limited to, feasibility studies, renewable energy grid integration studies, renewable energy advisory services, renewable energy modelling software training, market reviews etc.

Examples include the renewable solar energy project at the V&A Waterfront and studies done across South Africa and for other African governments.

“We conducted a feasibility study for the Namibian government. Namibia is embarking on a R40 billion large-scale renewable energy programme after we established the feasibility of integrating renewable energy into the country’s grid.

The centre’s main priority is human capital development. This is very relevant and important in the South African context as the country has limited knowledge of most of the technologies associated with renewable and sustainable energy.

“The CRSES, in partnership with other universities, has done well in terms of human capital development of local engineers. If we look at the current national renewable energy programme, the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REI4P), some of the students who have graduated from this centre and other partnering universities are working in that programme,” says Prof Mamphweli.

Prof Mamphweli, who serves on various committees at the faculty, and is also a member of the University Senate, says that collaborations are very important in this space.

“Since we can never succeed in our field without collaborations, we collaborate with research universities and other institutes nationwide, on the African continent and at international level.

“Within that network we have 16 African universities involved in renewable energy research, four of which are South African institutions. We are looking at access to food, energy and water, which is perfectly in line with our main role—to co-ordinate research and stimulate research activities,” says Prof Mamphweli.

Speaking proudly about the successes and achievements of the centre, he says there are too many to mention but highlights work done with the City of Cape Town, in collaboration with Eskom and University of Cape Town (UCT).

“In that study we are looking at renewable energy penetration with specific reference to solar energy—and we are looking at embedded generation, which the City is now allowing. What this means is that residents can install solar panels through the grid. The grid is used as a storage space and as no batteries are needed, the cost of the solar energy system is lower.

A leader who is no stranger to achieving great heights, the professor studied Environmental Sciences at the University of Venda.

It was during his Honours year that he gained an interest in the energy side of things and focused on bio-energy utilisation in the rural areas. When doing his PhD at the University of Fort Hare, he was an Eskom Research Fellow.

“My passion for energy was driven by my coming from a rural area where many people lacked access to clean energy. I saw an opportunity to solve real problems. Before joining SU, I implemented a number of renewable energy projects in rural areas in the Eastern Cape, where I installed hundreds of solar systems in schools and households. I could see the immediate impact, how people’s lives were improving immediately. That was very rewarding for me.”

His contribution to solving the world’s energy crisis shines in more than 90 published research articles, including book chapters, which he has co-authored.

With regard to how leadership in South Africa can improve our energy situation, the humble professor says proper planning and policy certainty over the ten, fifteen or twenty years will stimulate the renewable energy industry and attract direct foreign investment.

“Look what happened when we had policy uncertainty. When people were talking a lot more about nuclear energy, the renewable energy industry was starting to grow and then it stopped, and some investors pulled out of the programme, resulting in job losses and a stagnant economy.

“If we have a plan like the Integrated Resource Plan (SA’s energy plan for the next ten years), then we, as leaders in the field, introduce policy certainty.

“That, in turn, will stimulate the industry. Once that happens, manufacturing will take off in South Africa, allowing us to export more goods to the rest of the continent. We have the potential to become a renewable energy hub in Africa.

“What is my biggest wish? Even with the Renewable Energy Programme in action, most people employed at senior management level still come from outside South Africa. I would like to see that changing, with local people taking the lead. As a country, we still have skills shortages in this field. I would like to encourage young engineers to join the industry, and I would like to see more people in the industry upskill themselves,” Prof Mamphweli concludes. 

For more information, or details about the courses offered at the CRSES, go to www.crses.sun.ac.za.

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