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At the gates

By South African Renewable Energy Council (SAREC) on 20 February 2017
Selwyn Africa (25), a security guard at Touwsrivier CPV1 PV power plant

When a 44 megawatt solar plant was built just outside the Karoo town of Touws River, the private consortium that owns it had to ensure that some of the people it hired to help run the place are from nearby communities. Leonie Joubert met the security guards at the gate.

Rachel Natel has her no-nonsense face on this morning, as a car pulls up at the gate to the relatively new solar power plant about 10km outside of Touws River. 

‘Blow onto this, please?’

She points to the blunt end of an electrical device in her hand, and nods. She’s not really asking.  It’s only 9am, but security protocols are tight here: no booze in your system, if you’re coming onto the premises. 

The 31-year-old later softens as she starts talking about herself: she’s been employed here as a security guard for two years. Before that, she was a farm worker, picking grapes and the likes. 

The Touwsrivier CPV1 PV power plant is one of a series of 96 state-commissioned facilities that is being built around the country, as part of the Department of Energy’s utility-scale renewable energy programme. Some of the state’s conditions are that these private energy firms source a percentage of their equipment, materials, and services from within South Africa; that some of the skills come from within the local community; and that they run various socio-economic or enterprise development initiatives within local communities, to try and inject a bit of life into these often lacklustre rural economies. 

Many of the approximately 50 plants that are already built and feeding electricity into the grid, took between 18 months and two years to build, resulting in significant construction-related jobs. All plants have a life expectancy of about 20 years, meaning that they will definitely provide operational jobs for two decades. 

An analysis of the overall programme by Professor Anton Eberhard, an infrastructure specialist at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, estimates that the number jobs across all 96 plants will be close to 110 000 in total, of which nearly 85 000 are specifically for black South Africans, and nearly 58 000 jobs for people living in the vicinity of the sites.

The cascade of jobs in the industries surrounding these obvious construction and operational jobs is harder to measure and predict, but shouldn’t be discounted, according to a Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, which reviews the wider employment implications of the programme. 

‘The kind of enterprise development associated with these plants goes well beyond just what happens on the sites themselves,’ explains doctoral-level social scientist and consultant Holle Wlokas, who wrote the WWF report.

‘During construction, you can expect an increase in demand for many different services in the wider community, as the local population swells with the influx of people associated with construction.’

Local hotels and related accommodation businesses and food retailers, for instance, will receive a boost in demand. 

‘Hardware stores and people in the transport industry are also likely to see an increase in trade.’

This analysis doesn’t include the possible benefits for the informal sector, which helps keep money circulating within the local economy. 

Most of these jobs are associated with the construction phase, generally occurring in the first two years of a project. These usually result in unskilled work for local residents, and are temporary, but give necessary employment opportunities for those who might otherwise struggle to find work in economically stagnant rural areas. Operational jobs are usually more skilled, and are fewer in number, but are expected to last 20 years through the lifespan of the plants, which will be a further injection into local economies.

The Touws River plant has been fully operation since December 2014, and now employs around 35 people.

Rachel, and her colleagues Cedric Koopman (53) and Selwyn Africa (25), also security guards, are amongst those. It looks like there are long hours of waiting for not much to happen, out here amidst the farmlands of the Karoo. But when a car does pull up at the front gates of the plant, strict protocols kick in. This is a high voltage facility, and security has to be tight.

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