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Declaring herself a tenacious, dedicated and results-driven personality, Ntombifuthi Ntuli, the CSIR’s head of energy industry research, is well-suited to direct the dialogue needed in these turbulent times, when the so-called 4Ds are marking their mark on the energy sector. ESI Africa spoke with Ntombi on her vested interest in South Africa’s energy landscape.

Ntombi, as the head of the Energy Industry Research Group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa, what is your core role?

Established in 2014, the CSIR Energy Centre is mandated to define and implement the organisation’s energy research agenda. The aim of the centre, which is organised into six research groups, is to provide the knowledge base for the South African energy transition and beyond. The group that I lead is the Energy Industry, which focuses on analysing the economic impacts of theenergy sector transition. Currently the group’s priority is:

  • Industrialisation Development: this work stream focuses on analysis of industrial development scenarios and industrial policy analysis as related to the energy sector, including policies such as localisation, export promotion, import tariffs, WTO rules, etc. Within this domain the research group also focuses on development of SMMEs in the energy sector.
  • Energy Industry Transition: the focus of this work stream is to continuously assess the impact of the reduced reliance on coal on the mining sector for energy production. This area maps out the ideal end state of the envisaged energy industry transition. This work also involves analysis of the impact of energy transition over a period of time, particularly for the impacted sectors. The analysis may include jobs impact, regional economic impacts and socioeconomic impacts.

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

As a Research Group Leader my role involves development and implementation of the Research Group’s strategy and business plan, and broadly defining the research agenda for the group. Human capital development through mentoring staff and working with universities to mentor students in the fields of energy and economics ensures that we grow the pipeline of top quality researchers.

Business development is also a big part of my role in order to ensure that sufficient external funding is secured for planned research, which in turn positions the CSIR Energy Centre as a leader in the energy industry research, through ground-breaking research and ensuring a standard of excellent quality research outputs. This we do by staying abreast of the latest developments within the energy sector and ensuring the scope of research activities will maintain the group’s leading position.

What is your leadership style and how do you go about overcoming challenges in the work environment?

Unfortunately, leadership does not come packaged in a neat box. However, I prefer to set the tone and strategy, and ensure that team members understand wherewe are going and what we intend to achieve. I definitely do not believe in autocratic leadership: my focus is not to rule but rather to mentor and develop the next generation of leaders. Through leadership, I aim to build a team of individuals that can be autonomous and operate in almost any environment.

As for challenges in the work environment, I believe in addressing issues upfront, in a frank and articulate manner, to find solutions before the problem spirals out of control. The key is communicating things proactively, and to always end the discussion with a clear decision having been made – as a leader never assumes that people will figure things out.

Should gender matter? Are we asking the right questions and what industry changes are needed so that this question becomes irrelevant?

While pockets of change are happening, we are still very far from reaching gender parity in corporate environments; particularly in leadership and decision making roles. With increased access to education for women – especially in previously male-dominated sectors like engineering and the sciences – one would assume that this places women on par with men when it comes to economic participation and opportunity. Sadly, the numbers prove otherwise.

Government policies and regulation (like the South African Employment Equity Act) play a significant role in accelerating gender balance in the workplace, and in leadership positions. However, I believe that change on a society-level is needed before we talk about workplace and policy changes. In society, nurturing and caregiving roles in households, for the most part, automatically fall on women, leaving them little time to dedicate to education and advancing their careers. Family members, particularly men, can play a significant supporting role for women who have a demanding career, since women are equally important in providing financial support to the family. This should compel all family members to share the caregiving responsibilities, and become more involved in parenting and running of the family.

Another key social change is mentorship within the family: it is very important to groom young women so that they develop aspirations to become managers and leaders. Lastly the education system needs to encourage women as early as primary school to embrace careers that were previously male dominated.

Ntombi, you are also a board member of SAWEA. What was the most important stepping stone that led to your being so actively entrenched in the energy sector?

On returning to work from five months’ maternity leave in 2006, I found that things had changed. This included a number of managers having left the organisation during the same year, leaving some of the programmes unattended. One of those programmes was energy and climate change. This presented an opportunity and new challenge my way; I raised my hand to look after the programme in the interim. At the time we had just completed developing the energy and climate change strategy for the municipality, so I would therefore focus on managing the implementation of the strategy.

This gave me exposure through having to attend meetings and forums that would naturally be attended by my manager. In a way I had volunteered myself into a management role, but the experience was invaluable. In 2008, the energy crisis hit and South Africa started rolling out load shedding to balance power supply and demand. Accelerating programmes to deal with the crisis became a priority; and at the same time the climate change mitigation topic was gaining momentum.

There was also a lot of development aid support for municipalities by programmes such as the Danish Government’s DANIDA programme. Some of the funds were channelled through local NGOs such as Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) for capacity building and support for municipalities. SEA funded me to attend the Solar Cities Congress in Australia in 2007 and that would be my formal introduction to the renewable energy sector.

I found myself being the focal point for energy and climate change in the municipality and professionally benefited from those capacity building programmes. This gave me the power to manage energy projects such as retrofitting of the municipality fleet to run on landfill gas, retrofitting of municipal buildings for energy efficiency, and municipal solar water heater programmes.

Tell us about the current situation in South Africa’s energy sector.

It’s a vibrant sector right now, as the energy sector is going through a multifaceted transition, with decarbonisation (the transition from carbon-intensive to clean energy sources) pioneering the way. The transition was facilitated by the IRP 2010, which for the first time in the history of South Africa’s energy planning, included 17.8GW of renewables in the energy mix by 2030. This was subsequently followed by a procurement plan, which was stipulated in two iterations of the Ministerial determinations for new generation capacity. Since its commencement 6.3GW of renewable energy has been procured, of which 3.7GW is already operational and feeding into the national grid.

The draft IRP 2016 (base case) indicates that that by 2050 there would be 18GW of solar PV and 37GW of wind energy. More ambitious scenarios of the IRP developed by the CSIR indicate that by 2050 we could have up to 90% share of renewables in the power system, at the least cost.

Democratisation, another transition factor, is opening the energy generation business to private entities. This has been achieved through the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, where for the first time in South Africa the IPPs were able to develop energy projects (renewables, coal and gas) and sell to the national power utility through a government-run programme. This of course threatens the monopolistic position of the state-owned power utility and was therefore bound to be met with resistance.

The transition towards a low carbon power system has not been without challenges. The past three years have seen a stalemate between the utility and IPPs in terms of signing of the PPAs for the 4th bidding round projects, which were awarded in 2014. Understandably, any change process is bound to experience resistance as it challenges the status quo, which leads to incumbents’ insecurity and feeling the need to protect their territory.

We have witnessed considerable opposition to the aggressive growth of the renewable energy sector. In recent months, labour movements started a revolution against the growth of the renewables industry citing job losses in the coal power sector. Through a High Court ruling the signing of further IPPs has now taken place, keeping renewables squarely within the energy mix. This market has the potential to create decentralised employment across the value chain but it seems the industry’s co-benefits are not widely publicised – which calls for a concerted general public awareness programme on renewable energy. The cost of renewable energy is decreasing annually and this provides an opportunity for the country to increase the share of renewables while reducing the cost of electricity.

A third disruptor is decentralisation, whereby the need to restructure the energy industry from a centralised single vertically integrated utility to separate entities handling generation, transmission and distribution is making an entrance. Importantly, this also includes the recognition of the role of municipalities in the energy value chain. If this part of the transition materialises, there will be a need to set up an independent system and market operator and it will necessitate a complete redesign of the South African energy market.

Fourthly, digitisation is a keen contender to energising the market, which stands to benefit substantially from the use of digital technologies that enable the power system to integrate a higher share of renewable energy while improving the general efficiency of the system and resulting in optimal use of energy.

Apart from these 4Ds set to ‘industrialise’ the energy sector, a debate is raging between nuclear vs. renewable energy. While government (through the IRP process) has been actively pushing for nuclear to be a big part of the power mix going forward, there was a lot of pushback from various stakeholders. The biggest point of contention is on cost and safety of nuclear energy, while its proponents are arguing against the reliability of renewable energy. This has resulted in the delayed finalisation of the IRP 2016, which is yet to be released to the public after being approved by Cabinet in December 2017.

You have played a strategic role in various projects. What were the challenges and opportunities that arose from these projects?

When I worked for the Department of Trade and Industry, I was responsible for facilitating the development of local renewable energy industry through policy interventions such as local content, import tariffs, financial incentives, etc. This created opportunities for South Africa to attract foreign direct investments in the manufacturing of solar PV and wind energy components. There were several challenges in terms of defining what constitutes local content, defining the local value addition and generally compounding the local content throughout the value chain. The biggest challenge was that the local content policy was seen by foreign suppliers as very protectionist and anti-competitive and was prone to being challenged at World Trade Organisation (WTO) level. However through the challenges South Africa did realise investments of almost R1 billion which included wind tower manufacturing, solar PV modules assembly, inverter assembly and manufacturing of steel mounting structures.

Unfortunately, because of policy uncertainty (delayed IRP Approval) and the impasse on signing of the PPAs, most of these manufacturing facilities closed down and some of the investments in the pipeline were not realised. The biggest lesson from this programme was that it is difficult to try and build an entire industry based on one single procurement programme, because when the procurement programme stalls or is ended, the industry collapses along with it. So while localisation of renewable energy was supported by the growth of the local market, we also needed a strong export focus in order to sustain local factories during quiet times in the local market. What we also learned is that policy alignment was crucial for the success of the localisation programme, which means that the energy policy needed to take into account the objectives of the industrial policy of the country, and roll out procurement in a way that supported industrialisation and other economic objectives.

What projects are you currently busy with and what will these achieve?

The “Co-Benefits Project” is an initiative by a consortium of German partners – Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS); Renewables Academy AG (RENAC); Independent Institute for Environmental Issues (UfU); and International Energy Transition (IET) – funded by the German Federal Ministry of Environmental Affairs. The project is being implemented in four countries: India, South Africa, Vietnam and Turkey. The CSIR has been appointed to act as principal national focal point and national network hub for South Africa in implementing this research and policy advice project.

The aim of the project is to identify, prioritise and analyse country specific co-benefits of climate mitigation policies, with emphasis on the opportunities presented by renewable power generation, thus making a link between climate change mitigation strategies and social and economic opportunities of renewable energies (such as value creation, employment, health, water use, and energy access and energy security). The project will also enable international mutual learning and capacity building among policy makers, knowledge partners and multipliers on enabling environments to seize the co-benefits of climate change mitigation.

We are currently commissioning four studies under this project: employment and skills opportunities (taking into consideration jobs losses in the coal sector); impacts of RE on air quality and health; economic benefits of self-consumption (embedded generation); and socio-economic benefits for marginalised communities. These studies will make a big contribution to current dialogues on “Just Energy Transition”.

I’m also leading a project where we are developing a Renewable Energy Guide for SMMEs. The project is a CSIR initiative and aims to educate and assist small businesses to position themselves in the renewable energy value chain and take advantage of available business opportunities. ESI

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

Ntuli’s top energy market predictions in the next five years

  • The power systems of tomorrow will incorporate more clean, affordable and decentralised energy • Restructuring of South Africa’s national power utility
  • Municipalities will play a more significant role in power distribution
  • Storage will become a big part of the energy system as technology costs decrease
  • Increased uptake of electric vehicles.

This regular Women in Energy feature is proudly sponsored by Lucy Electric