CFO Oliver Braithwaite believes its an exciting time in SA’s renewable energy journey

The SOLA Group CFO shares why renewable energy is important to him, and how the industry is booming.

It’s no secret that South Africa’s national energy grid is in dire shape. A Daily Maverick report from May this year revealed that Johannesburg alone experienced 1,407 power cuts from January to May 2021 – that’s just for City Power and excludes Eskom’s load-shedding. To add to the city’s power woes, electricity tariffs increased by a massive 14.59 percent in July.

The solar power industry, however, is booming. Last year, the South African solar photovoltaic (PV) market installed 1,313MW, and, according to the African Solar Industry Association’s Africa Solar 2020 report, the C&I energy landscape is seeing significant growth, as the sector could represent up to 40 percent of all solar capacity installed on the continent over the next few years.

Oliver Braithwaite is the CFO at SOLA Group, a solar PV services company that operates throughout Africa and has offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Working at SOLA has shown him how green energy can have a powerful impact – on businesses and the South African economy at large.
“Solar energy has a direct impact on society and the environment,” says Oliver. “Working for a renewable energy company has shown me that direct link.”

A CA’s journey from Cape Town to the Caribbean
Like many CFOs, Oliver Braithwaite has always been good with numbers. At school, he loved how satisfied he felt when he solved a maths problem. Although he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to study after matric, it made sense for him to do a business science degree at the University of Cape Town. He also pursued the CA programme, and his articles led him to Deloitte in Johannesburg.

“The CA qualification was a great decision,” says Oliver. “Doing my articles in the economic hub of the country exposed me to a different environment and different industries, while being away from home made me want to explore other options.”

In Johannesburg, Oliver took up an opportunity to spend 18 months in the Cayman Islands. Understandably living the dream, he ended up staying for two and a half years.

“Working for Deloitte in the Cayman Islands was a fantastic, diverse experience; it’s a wonderful place, and I had colleagues from all over the world. Due to its proximity to the US, it also provided excellent exposure to global business best practice.”

After his time in the Caribbean and a travelling stint, Oliver decided to settle down and return home. He started a job search, which led him to SOLA. Working for a solar company appealed to Oliver, as he was attracted to the hands-on nature of the business.

“I've always been a practical person. With the solar industry, you get to enjoy physical activity, like site visits. Getting involved in the renewable energy industry was also appealing as I'm a nature lover.”

Renewable energy’s big impact on businesses
According to Oliver, the South African government’s cap increase for embedded energy generation licence exemption is a step in the right direction.

The newly gazetted regulations mean that embedded generation projects up to 100MW are no longer required to apply for generation licences from the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA). To put this into perspective, says Oliver, 1MW of energy generation capacity is equal to a small shopping centre; 100MW would fulfil the energy needs of a large mine.

Before the regulatory change, if your local shopping centre wanted to generate its own energy it would need to jump through the same, onerous hoops as a huge industrial operation.

Many of these embedded generation projects will be derived from green energy, and it will be a boon for investment and job creation in this growing sector.

It also means that it’ll be much easier for businesses to enter into Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with private entities, such as solar companies.

“Applicants will now only need to register their generation project with NERSA, as opposed to going through a lengthy generation licensing process,” says Oliver.

Understanding the cheapest form of energy’s economic benefits
Solar PV panels convert the sun’s rays into direct-current (DC) electricity. They contain an on-site inverter that converts the DC power to AC power, which can then be connected to a building’s power supply or directly to the electricity grid. Standard, less expensive systems are grid-tied, so they are not a backup for load-shedding. However, there are ways around this, says Oliver.

“Most of our clients choose to remain connected to the grid so they can use the cheapest form of energy, at various times of the day,” he explains.

“Solar is most beneficial during midday, and the grid supply of power is there for the off-peak periods. We have a few clients who are using hybrid-solar battery systems that can supply them with power 24/7. Hybrid-islandable systems are becoming popular, too; they act like on-grid systems, but they can automatically 'island' (operate independently) during load-shedding.”

Oliver adds that the opening of the self-generation threshold means that those islandable systems become more cost-effective. This is because a larger solar system is now accessible to businesses, and cheap solar power can be stored in batteries for dispatching during load-shedding.

There’s no denying that solar installation comes with a hefty capital outlay, but there are financing options available for businesses in the form of long-term PPAs and rent-to-own models. According to Oliver, the pay-off period can be as short as three years (when a significantly reduced solar energy tariff, which can be 50 percent cheaper than the cheapest Eskom tariff, is taken into account). And, with no moving parts, solar set-ups require almost no maintenance and last for 25 years.

“More businesses are getting on board with PPA and rent-to-own models, but it's a matter of awareness and being able to understand the economic benefits,” says Oliver.

Renewable energy will unlock huge potential
The new energy regulations are set to have a significant impact on sentiment towards the renewable energy sector, and investment into it. According to Oliver, SOLA is already seeing increased interest among clients who want to expand their existing solar energy systems and further reduce their reliance on the grid.

Oliver emphasises that self-generation, whether grid-tied or completely off-grid, provides a reliable energy supply to ensure business continuity. And the reduction of carbon emissions will, of course, go towards sustainability targets.

“South Africa has access to some of the best sources of renewable energy in the world, and with the changes to legislation, there is the opportunity to unlock huge potential. This could have a big impact on energy availability and economic growth for South Africa,” says Oliver.

“I believe we are at an exciting point in our energy journey as a country.”