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Revenue Pathways in the Off-Grid Solar Industry 1: Technical Paths

Renewable energy has steadily received huge amounts of investment in recent times. The UN Paris agreement influenced the increase in November 2015. World leaders and countries signed a collective deal to limit the global temperature increase in the 21st century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As a result, the world invested USD282.2 billion in 2019, which is UDS2 billion more than the previous year (according to REGlobal).

The move to electrify Africa with renewable sources is massive. Sub-Saharan countries attracted 65% of the world’s RE investments between 2007 and 2019. However, this attention has shed light on an underlying issue: the lack of a competent, professional workforce to leverage these investment opportunities to provide sustainable results. This issue is a huge concern for the industry because an inadequate workforce affects the rate and quality of project deployments. More funds are also expended per project since the skilled workforce ends up being imported in many cases. Overall, an inadequate workforce erodes the potential economic development from forfeited local job opportunities and more money lost from project delays.

Pathway to jobs

As problems are opportunities in disguise, the lacking renewable energy industry workforce in Africa has created an opportunity to groom new entrepreneurs and an employable workforce to serve the growing industry. According to the World Economic Forum, the Off-Grid renewable energy value chain has the potential to create 4.5 million jobs globally by 2030There are opportunities for academia-industry partnerships, as well as for individual industry-based training institutions.

Read also: Lagos to expose more MSMEs to funding, market opportunities

Some industry-based training institutes already exist in Nigeria, including The Renewable Energy Technology Training Institute (RETTI), Rubitec Academy, Blue Camel Academy, and ASTEVENS Solar Academy. These organisations are dedicated to enabling the technical and non-technical capacity needed in the industry. For instance, RETTI’s objectives are to prepare a skilled workforce that renewable energy companies will employ and equip entrepreneurs who will drive the solar energy market through their products. RETTI was formed out of the passion for enabling Nigerian small and medium businesses (SMEs) who spend a significant part of their income purchasing diesel, thereby crippling them. Therefore, RETTI is training a new generation of skilled workforce pool that will support the deployment and marketing of renewable electrification solutions targeted at such SMEs.

Technical opportunities abound in the design, development, construction and operation of off-grid renewable electricity solutions. From the academics’ perspective, engineering degrees (electrical, electronics, mechanical, etc.) partly provide part of the foundational knowledge for a technical career in the solar industry. Such courses provide knowledge in electronics, mathematics and physics that form the theories of electrical systems. Some of the useful technical skills include:

Technical Opportunities

• Manufacturing/assembling: The ability to leverage local content to accelerate off-grid electrification in Africa is key. Completely relying on the importation of components drives up the costs and affects the quality of solutions that are deployed.
Recognising the need to grow the sub-sector, the Federal Government introduced the 5 million Solar Power Naija project.

The initiative aims to facilitate five million new solar-based connections in off-grid communities to electrify 25 million Nigerians. The initiative intends to support much of the deployment through locally assembled and manufactured components, improving local revenue and creating job opportunities. Hence, there is a growing opportunity to build capacity in the manufacturing and assembly of components.

Currently, the manufacturing/assembling segment of the solar ecosystem in Nigeria is barely existent, apart from a few who have dared the odds to establish. For example, Auxano Solar assembles solar PV modules, while Greenage Technologies manufactures inverters.

There is a pressing need for more component manufacturers and assemblers, and such requires targeted capacity-building in engineering systems. A degree in Mechanical engineering and solar energy is a good start. An advanced degree in renewable energy engineering is more targeted. Intending or practising manufacturers/assemblers could also take executive hands-on programs on manufacturing solar panels and creating all the components that come together. There is also a need to create related companies and form alliances with other partners for distribution.

• Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Design: Solar PV design involves determining the capacity, size, and configuration of solar solution that a building/geographical area requires based on energy needs. Adequate knowledge of solar PV design and installation is needed to become a design professional. However, an Electrical Engineering background is not necessary.

Anyone interested in solar PV design can receive the necessary training and practice through any of the institutions mentioned above and earn a certificate of competency. Afterwards, more practice is necessary to master the art and science of design. Some who have gone through this path have begun with internships/full-time roles in already existing solar companies. Others have started their businesses to design and sell solutions to individuals, businesses, hospitals, government establishments etc.

• Solar PV System installation: While the PV design
Given the right knowledge and practice, many designers can also install and vice-versa. However, installation involves more physical labour than design. PV system installation brings together all the necessary components to work as a solution. The basic components that constitute an installed system are the solar panels, batteries, inverters, charge controllers, mounting structures, circuit breakers and cables.

Those into PV installation should install various solar PV models, including solar home systems (SHS), microgrids and mini-grids. Requirements for pursuing the PV system installation path include:
• Adequate knowledge that can be gotten through training and practice
• Registered business (Limited Liability Company)
• Office Space
• Vehicle to move products to and from sites (this could be rented or bought).
• Trained staff. Some could be engineers; others can be design and installation technicians.
• Accounting knowledge or an accountant
• A site engineer.
• Good marketing, communication and negotiation skills.
• An easy to locate address.
• Handy supplier of quality solar products.
• Persuasion skills.

More information on becoming a Solar PV System Designer or Installer is available in detail in the book “How to Make Money from Solar”, written by Glory Oguegbu.

• Solar Repair and Maintenance: As we experience massive growth in renewable energy investment for electricity, especially in Africa, it is noticeably clear that there is bound to be accelerated adoption of solar solutions across Africa in the next couple of years. The increasing acceleration creates a huge opportunity for the solar systems repair and maintenance niche.

Solar repair and maintenance can either be considered as a separate business or a segment of services offered as an installer. Apart from the knowledge requirements for system design and installation, someone offering maintenance services should also have systems maintenance and troubleshooting skills.

A repair and maintenance personnel must understand the life cycle of the various solar solution components. For example, a typical solar panel lasts 25 – 30 years, while a good battery lasts anywhere between 5 – 15 years. The maintenance personnel should know the best time and method to maintain, repair and replace components. This kind of work requires:

• Good Marketing, communication and networking skills
• Technical tools such as multimeter, power meter, etc.
• Personal Protective Equipment (hand gloves, helmets and reflective jackets), cleaning equipment, installation accessories etc.

In conclusion, education for the renewable energy industry as a tool to unravel inherent opportunities for career and job creation cannot be emphasised enough. The government and all stakeholders concerned can continue creating opportunities to grow the renewable energy education sector. Opportunities that stimulate innovation, research, and development to promote access to 24/7 clean electricity in Nigeria can be harnessed when an abundance of skills can deliver sustainable projects.

The technical career pathways in the industry are just some aspects where industry opportunities lie. The next article will address numerous non-technical roles spanning the commercial, finance, legal and marketing fields.

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