Women in solar

September 13th, 2011, Published in Articles: Energize

Information from SESSA

To celebrate the end of women’s month and mark the importance of finding sustainable energy alternatives, we asked four women who make their living in the solar industry to tell us a little about their experiences.

“Listen to the consumer. Learn as much about this industry as you, then decide which green path you wish to follow,” are the words of advice from solar industry path-blazer, Marlene Snowden, to anyone thinking of entering the industry. As CEO and owner of Inti Solar Corporation, and projects the size of 36 000 units in eThekwini in KwaZulu-Natal and 5000 in Tshwane under her belt, Marlene does business in Johannesburg, Durban, Limpopo, Pretoria, Cape Town and the Breede Valley. Self-taught with lots of passion for the industry and determination to know everything, she got into the solar industry after being involved in the low cost housing sector. Here, she witnessed RDP homes being built without any means of getting hot water except using kettles or starting fires; expensive and time-consuming options.

“When I saw that a hot water supply was not planned for in these homes, I looked at supplying low pressure solar geysers which are completely off the grid to these home owners, especially the elderly and indigent,” she said.  “This took me on a journey of knocking on Governments doors to find a solution to finance the home owner, and in the process help them to save the little money they have to be used for other lifestyle goods. “It has also given me some of the most memorable moments of my life. For example, in Tshwane working on the Eskom tender project there, we had great camaraderie between all the installation teams, who were happy to learn a new trade, and the homeowners, who were delighted to have hot water on tap in their houses. “I started off training ladies in the communities to assemble and install the geysers, and they took to it like ducks to water. My lady teams were the best and rather fastidious workers – which was fantastic.”

The fact that solar has a positive impact on the environment, has health benefits and makes the lives of people so much easier are things that Marlene enjoys about being in the industry; she dislikes the fly-by-nights or “cowboys”.  “Those who get into the industry with little or no knowledge of how it operates on a financial level do us all a disservice. These are the players who, with signed contracts from municipalities to deliver a certain amount of solar geysers in their pockets, haven’t budgeted correctly and simply abandon the projects when they realise the mess they’ve created; obviously to the detriment of the communities looking for the solar geysers. “This brings me to the biggest challenges facing my company. To be successful and continue growing, Inti Solar needs to have the right partners in the various provinces where we do business. We not only need people with integrity and perseverance, we need people with the right skills. All too often, we have entered into joint ventures with partners that seem promising, but have landing up executing the projects ourselves to make sure it is a success. So, on an industry level, we need to be regulated, and regulated immediately to ensure the industry delivers. “Also, there needs to be greater clarity around funding to assist industry participants plan correctly.

Not only does the incredibly slow rebate payments schedule slow down our rate of delivery, it increases the risk of doing business because of the negative impact on our cash flow. We need to have a clear policy moving forward, to know when funding will be available, how this funding will be allocated to each participating company, and how many units will be allocated to each participating company.  “Eskom has done its utmost to come to the party to date, but the situation where it runs out of funds midway through a project is just untenable.

“If I had the opportunity to do one thing differently, I would have urged the solar industry to begin working with the planning departments and human settlements much sooner than it did so that we could now be in the position where budgets to include solar geysers and solar lights are approved at the beginning phases of any project.” Marlene doesn’t believe women are at a disadvantage in the solar industry saying that the fairer sex usually loves a challenge. “This is an industry run mostly by men but we have a few women in the industry pioneering innovative products and pushing for change. I am fortunate to be respected by my male peers, and am recognised for my hard work and determination to succeed for the benefit of all.

In the two years it’s been in business, this company has imported over 1000 collectors and sent them into the market though its warehouses in Gauteng, the Western and Eastern Cape, and Mpumalanga. Melinde, who works with her husband, got into solar through the grey water industry. Specialising in solar heating, they’ve now moved into solar power, “a very different industry”, she said. “I really enjoy that ‘aha’ moment, that instant when you see the penny drop and people realise just what solar can do for them,” she said. “Especially when it comes to schools and pensioners, those people who don’t have much disposable income to start with. It is a privilege to be able to help them. “Then, I also really enjoy working with people who are passionate and committed; my favourite project has to be that for a farmer outside St Francis. Eskom wanted a million to hook him to the grid; our solution was less than half that and he is so inspired he has plans to build an eco-friendly guesthouse. That’s called making a difference.” It’s an attitude like that that drives Melinde to share her knowledge with the people of Jeffrey’s Bay, where she’s based. Here, she works with local schools to help them to become self-sufficient by teaching them about using grey water for vegetable crops, rain water in their households, solar energy for heating water and cooking, and so on.

“If I had to change one thing about my career in solar to date, it would be to have gotten involved sooner,” she laughs. “We were probably about six years too early as it is but I would have preferred to have laid the groundwork years ago. “The only negative about the industry is the negative marketing tactics used by some competitors. The market is currently driven by people chasing as much cash as they can, and they’re not building for the future. We need to tackle this as an industry, stop running other companies down just to get ahead, and rather work together to build strong demand.”  Fly-by-nights, too, are the bug-bear of Solar Distributors Africa’s Maigen de Beer: “These folk just want to make a quick buck, and damage the industry because of the corners they cut and the poor installations they deliver. It can be quite disheartening at times,” she said.

“That said, I really value being part of a ‘green’ industry. And I realise it’s a growing sector, one with lots of potential. My advice to anyone thinking of entering the industry is to make certain your technicians are well-trained so that each job you do is testimony to your own name as well as solar as a viable sustainable energy source. Also, invest time educating your consumers: the more they know, the better decisions they’ll be able to make.” Carol Roberts, Marketing Manager at Hudu Solar, a national distributor, only joined the industry in March this year, but she finds it a rewarding sector to work in. “My move into the solar industry demonstrates the power of positive thinking – or at the very least, the power of suggestion,” said Carol. “I had been working in the fashion industry for several years, but it was beginning to lose its appeal; I wanted a job that contributed something more positive to society as a whole. And then out of the blue came the opportunity to join Hudu as marketing manager. I couldn’t have been happier.” Carol doesn’t view being a woman in the solar industry as a negative; in fact, she’s come across a number of women and finds it a very empowering environment.

“When I joined Hudu I was sent to China to visit the suppliers of the technology we sell. There, the women I met were quite high up in the company hierarchy, and we quite powerful as individuals as well as industry players. I’m finding a similar situation here; many of the most passionate advocates for solar as an alternative energy source are the women I come into contact with. “The most rewarding aspect about the industry for me to date has been the learning curve; I really did enjoy learning about the technologies and applications. Now that I know a lot more, I’m also enjoying the educational aspect and interaction with the broader public spreading a general message about sustainable energy, as well as explaining the difference solar power can make in their lives,” she said. Hudu’s biggest installation is a 500 kW solar farm it’s currently installing at a new retirement village in Pretoria.

From the outset, the developer wanted the village to be independent of the grid and has embraced numerous solar technologies to achieve it. For Carol, though, the most satisfying installation in her short time in the industry is a relatively small one in Woodmead, Sandton, for AECI’s office park. It makes use of Light Thru building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) technology to provide light, heat and power to the reception area and should deliver around 2 312 kWh AC power each year. “This installation addresses a concern many people have about solar panels: they are not always the most aesthetically pleasing part of a building,” she said. “Light Thru, however, turns a building’s features – such as skylights – into collectors, and enables architects to incorporate solar into a design in a way that pleases the eye.” This brings Carol to her concerns about the industry: “Not only do we need to do more education about the benefits of solar, we need more qualified engineers and technicians to help us deliver. If anyone out there is thinking of joining the industry, really research the product you are about to put your name behind and make certain it is a good one,” she said.

Contact Irvan Damon, SESSA, Tel 073 692-7386, irv@sessa.org.za