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Eskom's delays threaten R135m training centre

Saretec was set up in response to anticipated growth in the renewable energy sector.

Saretec was set up in response to anticipated growth in the renewable energy sector.

The future of the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (Saretec) at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology is under threat if construction on the next round of state-commissioned wind farms does not begin within the forthcoming year.

This is the warning from Naim Rassool, director of Saretec, who notes SA's fledgling wind turbine service technician training programme at the centre will be "skilling its graduates for unemployment" if nothing changes.

Besides renewable energy holding its own in the country's energy mix, power utility Eskom has been accused of adopting a negative attitude towards it of late. Among other issues, the parastatal has been accused of dragging its feet in signing new power purchase agreements (PPAs) with the industry.

Last month, much to the ire of the renewable industry players, Eskom controversially stated renewable energy projects resulted in a net loss of R9 billion to the South African economy in 2016. This assertion has since been dismissed by the industry as a "blatant distortion" of facts.

Stranded graduates

Rassool says the domestic job market for wind turbine service technicians will soon become saturated, leaving graduates unable to find employment locally. He adds it will also jeopardise the future of this training centre, one of only ‘five or six globally' that has a 2.5-megawatt wind turbine housing and associated components, supplied by manufacturer Nordex Wind Power, on site for training purposes.

Saretec was set up by the Department of Higher Education and Training in 2012, in response to the anticipated growth in the renewable energy sector.

The first intake of wind technician trainees was in February 2016. To date, 30 graduates have passed through the five-month training programme at Saretec, and gone on to complete another two months of practical work in the field. All of these graduates have been absorbed by the domestic industry.

"The most recent 15 graduates were fully sponsored by Nordex, which speaks to the commitment of the industry," says Rassool.

The wind power sector was expected to boom, possibly mirroring its growth in the US market, where this specialist wind turbine service technician job is the "fastest growing occupation", according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

This anticipated domestic growth follows the implementation of the Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement programme in 2011, when the department began commissioning private energy firms to build and operate 96 renewable energy plants around the country.

Half of these plants – mostly using solar and wind energy technologies – have already been built and are fully operational, feeding energy into the national grid.

Operational jobs

Wind farms generate the greater number of operational jobs since the turbines have so many working parts and need maintenance and repair work, says Rassool. Solar plants tend to generate more jobs during the construction phase, as photovoltaic panels need to be assembled; but once operational, plants do not require a large team to keep them running, he notes.

"The wind farms have a contractual obligation to the national power utility, Eskom, to remain operational 95% of the time, leaving little downtime for work on of the units," explains Rassool.

He notes each wind farm must have at least two technicians on site, with one technician for every three turbines, at any given time, to ensure immediate repairs can be done, as well as the regular maintenance work. For safety reasons, there always have to be a minimum of two technicians present when working on a tower, he notes.

Rassool says these construction delays threaten skills development in the sector, as well as the future of Saretec, which has been funded by the state to the tune of R105 million between 2012 and the end of 2016. Meanwhile, the private sector has injected further funding in excess of R30 million into the centre.

The next round of wind turbine service technicians begin their Saretec training this month, as do the first recruits for the solar photovoltaic technicians' course.

Rassool says the industry is anxious that the two-year delays in signing of contracts with the next round of developers will cause the wind sector's job market to become saturated, and local wind farms will not be able to employ graduates from courses run in 2018 and onwards.


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