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Women in Energy: No room for complacency says AMEU president

In its more than one hundred year history, the Association of Municipal Electrical Utilities (AMEU) has to date had a handful of female presidents presiding over the organisation’s mission and objectives.

The current president, Refilwe Mokgosi, is a role model for women in the industry as she sets high goals and expects nothing less than “great!” results from hard work.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 4-2019.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here

The Women in Energy feature is brought to you by Nyamezela.

When passed the baton of responsibility last year and during a period wherein the sector is going through some significant challenges – Refilwe expressed concern that there is a strong view that the current energy sales of the kilowatt business model is “dead”. We caught up with her to find out more.

Refilwe, you have just under two decades’ experience under your belt. Briefly, tell us about your background in the power sector and current position.

That’s right. My experience spans 19 years in the power industry having started out as an electrician (City of Tshwane) after which I moved to City Power where I held various positions and roles including that of Maintenance Planner. I’ve also worked at Eskom and Ekurhuleni municipality in operations and maintenance, planning, technology management, and revenue divisions.

In another move within the City of Tshwane I was appointed as Deputy Director – a position I held for four years – and advanced to Acting Director for Bulk Supply Services responsible for sub-transmission, power stations, metering, tariff and revenue protection units. In my most recent move, I joined Emfuleni local municipality as an Executive Director for Public Works, responsible for electricity, waste, roads and storms.

These are all exemplary positions. Tell us about projects that you are particularly proud of having worked on.

Over the years, there have been so many projects (laughs) but being one of the founders of the AMEU WIE (Woman in Electricity) rates among one of my proudest achievements. Seeing it grow in leaps and bounds stands out for me. This initiative has given the girl child/woman the opportunity to dream and thrive in a once male dominated industry.

Other projects that have given me a huge sense of accomplishment include the electrification of 20,000 stands, being involved in building a power station, and upgrade of a substation in one financial year. Also leading a team of engineers that completed projects worth R500 million in one financial year, including installation of smart meters in a period of two months.

There is an energy revolution underway that municipalities cannot ignore. What does this look like from your perspective?

For the energy sector, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is taking many forms and might appear as increased renewable energy capacity on the grid (such as solar and wind) combined with battery storage technology. The concern is around forcing massive implementation of these resources with the current technology and systems we have.

In this context, the revenue model, on which the utility business is based, is under threat. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which underpins the energy revolution, is already being witnessed by utilities as digitalisation, decarbonisation and decentralisation are affecting their traditional strategies.

With that said, we will need to balance the full range of energy sources and technologies, renewables, grid-tied, off-grid and otherwise. The fact is that globally, the energy transition is moving away from carbon-based resources to greener technologies, which presents an opportunity to improve technologies so that we become less reliant on fossil fuels.

In terms of the previous question, how can municipalities respond to these changes?

Honestly, it may seem insurmountable but achieving the above is possible over time – although it is going to be an onerous task.

We have to knuckle down and get to work to ensure that the global community’s progress does not leave us lagging; having to play catch up as countries in Africa often do.

In recent years, we have noticed a significant decline in solar power and wind energy prices and many municipal customers moving to off-grid. This development is still small-scale but this should not make us complacent to the prosumer threat. To safeguard our relevance in the market we need to implement:

1. smart demand response measures,
2. the integration of variable renewable energy sources,
3. smart charging for EVs, and
4. the emergence of small-scale distributed electricity resources such as household solar PV.

These aspects of the energy market are interlinked as, for example, demand response will be critical to providing the flexibility needed to integrate more generation from variable renewables.

What are the opportunities that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) raises for municipalities?

Collaboration! It is a common instinct to want to protect your business structure and to do it alone. However, the energy revolution calls for a change in how we respond to challenges as well.

Collaboration between private and public sector is, therefore, the answer to address the current energy inefficiencies and drafting policies, which serve as enablers for development.

The greatest transformational potential for the 4IR is predominantly digitalisation. Herein lies the ability to break down boundaries between energy sectors, increasing flexibility and enabling integration across entire systems.

Furthermore, 4IR technologies include digital data and analytics, which can reduce power system costs in at least four ways, by:

1. reducing operations and maintenance costs;
2. improving power plant and network efficiency;
3. reducing unplanned outages and downtime; and
4. extending the operational lifetime of assets.

Electricity rates in municipalities are climbing and customers are feeling the pinch. What is your advice in terms of setting electricity tariffs?

In South Africa, consumer electricity tariffs are guided by the national regulator, NERSA, and implemented by the utilities. The fact of the matter is that the kilowatt business is dying but municipalities are still expected to maintain the infrastructure and ensure all citizens have access to electricity.

To overcome the revenue shortfall, municipalities have added a fixed charge to the customer’s bill. This in itself is not sustainable and I recommend municipalities to explore other revenue options such as renting out the electrical network to telecoms companies or becoming service providers for rooftop solar PV maintenance. Think outside the known municipal services box.

From a business perspective, higher tariffs and lower costs of sales (CoS) will suit a power utility. However, as principle tariffs must be cost-reflective and affordable, for a power utility, this is easier said than done – especially in the current economic landscape with climbing electricity tariffs.

Municipalities are encouraged to do a proper Cost of Supply Study, as they should and must, like any business, know their costs structure to set proper tariffs and importantly recover costs.

The industry is historically a male-dominated sector. What energy sector changes are needed so that the issue of gender becomes irrelevant?

Women in prominent positions should go out and encourage, mentor young girls to embrace the engineering disciplines.

The AMEU WIE programme is already actively doing this but the more young people we can reach, the better.

Worldwide, men hold roughly three-quarters of energy sector jobs, even though women may represent as much as half of a country’s eligible workforce.

This underrepresentation of women in critical roles such as power generation, transmission and distribution is not only an issue of equity or fairness—it’s also a squandered economic opportunity.

When women participate fully in an economy, they form resilient businesses and enable achievement of economic and development goals. The benefits of investing in women expand beyond their immediate families, to their communities and countries, too.

As a general norm, the benefits of hiring women across a range of diverse industries around the world include the following:

• Access to the best available talent
• Improvements in productivity and innovation
• Strengthening team dynamics
• Reduced staff turnover

Making the workplace fairer benefits all parties. Implementing equitable workplace gender policies help companies to attract, retain and promote the best talent.

How has the AMEU responded to the 4IR developments?

(Chuckles), my inaugural speech was based on this exact topic; the revolution that is changing every aspect of our lives.

The aim was and still is for the AMEU to cultivate an understanding of the 4IR, the risks and opportunities it presents.

The organisation is ensuring that the necessary strategies are drawn up and discussed, and that the infrastructure is positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by this way of energy transition.

The AMEU leadership has accepted that the 4IR will be one of its major strategic initiatives going forward and has based the 2019 Convention on this theme. The association will also actively pursue assisting government in driving the 4IR agenda in South Africa.

What is your wish list for the electricity supply industry?

It is my hope that a stable hybrid solution, between fossil fuels and renewable energy, is established. My wish list is quite lengthy but has a transition to low carbon economy at its core.

• A sustainable ESI that reflects the best service delivery to all end-user customers and the lowest possible costs.
• A viable ESI that demonstrably is driving the growth agenda of the country.
• An ESI that contributes significantly to economic development and job creation.
• The challenges facing the ESI, especially Eskom, are quickly resolved – SA Inc.cannot afford to have Eskom fail.
• Affordable access to electricity for all in South Africa.
• The use of cost-effective technologies to drive top class service delivery.

Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you? What is the importance of having mentors?

Mentors are invaluable for so many reasons, but essentially for providing knowledge, motivation, advice and counsel, encouragement when you need it most, help with personal development and so much more.

I have been blessed to have had many mentors – each playing a key role in my personal life and career – serving as a point of reference along my journey.

It is good to have someone with whom you can bounce ideas off and discuss industryrelated challenges with and who keep you on your toes. As I always say: “there’s no room for complacency”.

The type of mentor that inspired me and whom I encourage women to seek out have generally reflected the following attributes:

• Willingness to share skills, knowledge, and expertise.
• Demonstrated a positive attitude and acted as a positive role model.
• Took a personal interest in our mentoring relationship.
• Exhibited enthusiasm in my field of expertise and interest.
• Valued ongoing learning and growth in my field of expertise.
• Always provided guidance and constructive feedback.
• They were respected by colleagues and employees in all levels of my organisation.
• They set out and met ongoing personal and professional goals.
• Valued the opinions and initiatives of others especially my peers and colleagues.
• They motivated others by setting a good example.

I could fill a book with the number of people who played a mentor or coach role in my life. My mother is my first and biggest mentor, she is a hard-working woman who never gives up and believes nothing in life is impossible. She instilled in me the motto of never giving up.

Other women who have inspired and mentored me include Neli Magubane, Jacqueline Mbewe, Bertha Dlamini, Lomile Modiselle, and Polelo Mphahlele who have all had a role to play in my success. To my male counterparts, I have not forgotten you but since we have just celebrated Women’s Month, let me just say thank you for your support and playing a role in my life.

Finally, Refilwe, what movie has shaped your professional thinking – and how?

The 2013 movie Wolf of Wall Street has stood out for me because of this quote, which resonates with me, “without action, the best intentions in the world are nothing more than that: Intentions”. ESI

The Women in Energy feature is brought to you by Nyamezela.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
Nicolette is the Editor of ESI Africa print journal, ESI-Africa.com and the annual African Power & Energy Elites. She is passionate about placing African countries on the international stage and is driven by the motto "The only way to predict the future is to create it". Join her in creating a sustainable future through articles and multimedia content.