OPINION | Renewables revolution offers brighter future for SA's small businesses

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Small and medium businesses could champion and lead the shift to a cleaner, more sustainable energy world.
Small and medium businesses could champion and lead the shift to a cleaner, more sustainable energy world.
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Solar PV and batteries are excellent backup power sources for most businesses and allow them to become increasingly independent from the grid, writes Pieter Bensch.

South Africa's shortfall of power generation capacity has reached beyond crisis levels.

We've experienced more days and hours of load shedding in 2022 than in any other year, but we also saw the longest stretch of unbroken load shedding across September and October. It's clear there will be no quick fixes for this long-standing challenge.  

In crisis lies the opportunity for organisations of all sizes, including small and medium businesses (SMBs). The public conversation often focuses on the challenges and costs of load shedding for smaller businesses and how these can be mitigated.

But a more empowering way to look at it is as a chance for SMBs to champion and lead the shift to a cleaner, more sustainable energy world.  

The SME Climate Impact Report commissioned by Sage and launched in partnership with Oxford Economics and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), showed SMEs' footprint totalled 29% of non-household emissions in South Africa when greenhouse gases generated in their supply chains were considered.

READ | Caution about Eskom's 'new' plan - but private power may come to the rescue

As such, SMBs can play a key role in the transition to cleaner energy. Let's start with the enormous demand we see in the market for renewables. From independent power producers (IPPs) building wind and solar farms to feed into the grid to large companies self-provisioning power to solar installations for SMBs and homes - there are plenty of growth opportunities.  

In 2020, electricity generated from renewables amounted to a mere 10.5% of the South African national total.

One researcher forecasts South Africa's renewable power capacity will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 10.7% from 2021 to 2035 to reach an estimate of 40.6GW by 2035, which will constitute 48.3% of total installed capacity.

Opening the floodgates

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently opened the floodgates for renewables investment, announcing a broad package of reforms. These include lifting the 100 MW licencing threshold for embedded power generation, announcing an Eskom feed-in tariff for solar users to sell power to the grid, and the acceleration of IPP rollouts.  

This creates enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs and SMBs throughout the supply chain, from providing and installing systems to manufacturing components and playing a role in power storage and provision. The market is far from saturated, and skills are in short supply, creating compelling entrepreneurial prospects in an industry with a bright future.  

The pace of innovation in renewables has been astonishing; we could envisage SMBs playing a leading role in driving further progress.

One of the lessons we could take from the load shedding crisis is that avoiding another monopoly would be highly desirable. Instead, we could foster a renewables ecosystem with competition at every level - from installation to power provision.

In fact, driving entrepreneurship is essential for a just transition. Government, labour, and communities are justifiably concerned about the loss of fossil fuel jobs and the poor getting left behind in the renewable energy revolution.

An inclusive renewables industry would help address these challenges by potentially creating 250 000 new jobs over the next 25 years and off-grid power solutions for rural communities.

Harnessing renewables in your business

Of course, not every SMB will want to become directly involved in the renewables industry, but every SMB uses electricity. Herein lies an opportunity for them to evaluate ways of harnessing alternative energy to improve business resilience, sustainability, and efficiency. Rapid renewables innovation means a strong business case for going solar.  

For most businesses, barring those with heavy machinery or commercial fridges, solar panels and battery backup are excellent backup power sources. They're cleaner, quiet, and don't depend on expensive fuel. What's more, solar offers small businesses the prospect of becoming increasingly independent from the grid and reducing their power bill over time.

READ | 'A time bomb': How load shedding is wrecking SA's substations

Some municipalities, such as Cape Town, allow businesses to feed power back to the grid for a rebate. Over time, solar installations will pay for themselves, even if you don't factor productivity through load shedding into the equation.

Becoming more sustainable is also a good reputational move that enhances an SMB's standing with customers and suppliers.

Renewable energy is key to securing energy future

Given that coal and nuclear plants are built on decade-plus timespans, solar and wind are the best options to address South Africa's power shortfall rapidly. But the backstory is we need to gradually wean ourselves from fossil fuels to meet our climate emission promise to the global community and play our part in addressing climate change. 

It's clear the future is renewable. Energy reform is an opportunity for businesses to increase growth and become more sustainable.

SMBs need to take their rightful place at the energy reform table, so they don't get left behind. Government and big business would be wise to tap into the resourcefulness and innovation of the SMB sector to help drive a faster and more successful transition.

- Pieter Bensch is executive vice president for Sage Africa & Middle East.

News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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