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Is a lack of skills hampering renewables as a viable solution for Eskom’s woes?

With Eskom executives warning that load shedding will be a con stant reality for South Africans for the next 12 to 18 months, renewable energy and, in particular, solar power, have been mooted as the saviours of our failing national grid. However, a lack of the requisite skills and knowledge is hampering many photovoltaic (PV) projects in the country. “We have seen many companies entering the market recently, and it is quite clear that the relevant skills are lacking. Furthermore, the high de mand for solar power means that the lack of skills in the industry will not be bridged quickly.”

These are the words of Svilen Voychev, CEO of Valsa Trading. The company was established in 2009 and is focused on designing, manu facturing and supplying mounting system solutions, as well as a com prehensive range of solar energy products to the PV solar industry on the African continent.
Driven by new leading-edge technologies, its vision is to be a leader in the PV solar industry, sharing expert knowledge of innovative technologies and providing quality products to installers, resellers and end users. Valsa provides a comprehensive range of quality solar energy solutions and products including mounting system solutions, mounting components, solar panels, inverters, Li-ion batteries, ac and dc combiner boxes, cables, housing, power tools and other accessories. “When we started the company, we focused on the manufacturing of the mounting structures,” explains Voychev. “However, many clients asked if we could also do the installation on site.” The company quickly learned that our local conditions required more than simple ‘copy and paste’ solutions from overseas. “This approach allowed us to learn both the mechanical and electrical aspects of the industry, and it was a natural progression to move from the manufacturing and supply of the mounting structures into a total turnkey supplier as we had identified the gaps in the market and the needs in the industry.” PV is a long-term solution with a heavy capex investment, but if clients do not do their homework, this will have an impact on their return on investment.

Voychev notes that the lack of skills in the industry is a big challenge. “We are seeing a few initiatives to promote education, but the only way to bridge this gap is constant work with the sector to provide training and support. As such, Valsa is extending its services to make installation teams more knowledgeable.” He notes that the SAPVIA sponsored PV GreenCard is a good start to ensure responsible and sustainable growth of the industry. The PV GreenCard is an as built report for the solar PV system owner and a checklist for the installer, which qualified installers provide to their clients on the completion of a project. The PV GreenCard contains details of the installation such as, what sort of PV modules and PV inverters were used, as well a checklist of all of the necessary instal lation steps that were completed.

He also states that one of the biggest mistakes the industry is making, is sizing systems based only on the electrical perspective. “Very often, site conditions and site infrastructure are the key points and should be the starting point for any solar plant design. It is no use designing a system that cannot then be installed because of the site restrictions. Recently, a client would have needed to spend R2 million to reinforce a roof based on the initial proposal, however; we found a solution; thinner, lighter panels. This didn’t require any downtime for the client to reinforce the roof.” Voychev’s advice is to look at every project holistically. “You cannot just look at the electrical aspect, as that could create obstacles later in the project, meaning rising costs and unhappy clients. As installers, you look incompetent, the turnaround times are longer, and it takes the client longer to get off the grid.” Future demands Voychev has been adamant since the formation of the company to manage local production to meet local requirements. “If you look at the infrastructure on the rooves of buildings in Africa compared to the rest of the world, some of the solutions available lo cally are made for different conditions,” he says. While rooves in Europe are designed to cater for snow (with a solid roofing substructure), locally that is not the case. “We cater for local needs and local dynamics. Substructures differ so each solution needs to be dealt with on its own basis, which I believe gives us a competitive advantage,” he explains.

Furthermore, the company is looking at growing in Africa and already has partners in Zimbabwe and Kenya. “They are going through the same learning patterns we have been through here in South Af rica, so we are able to use our experience to assist them. Every African country is at a different level of maturity in terms of solar, so we identify solid partners by their ability to implement PV projects,” says Voychev.

At the end of the day, the efficiency of the so lar plant impacts on the return on investment. “I use the analogy of a goose that gives you a gold en egg,” he explains. “A solar plant will give you a golden egg every day, yet the size of this egg will be determined by what has been installed, how it has been installed and how it is performing, and often this isn’t monitored, especially with the lack of skills in the industry. South Africa needs install ers who are aware of this to help the industry grow, and ultimately provide clean, stable power to the citizens of South Africa.”

Click here to view the original article in Sparks Electrical News

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