Story Time: How I Got Into The Solar Power Industry

How did I get into solar power? In 2015, during my Postdoc in Pretoria, I traveled to Zimbabwe and spent a few weeks there. That was the time when Zimbabwe was experiencing its worst ever period of electricity rationing, which is infamously known as load-shedding in this part of the world. The utility company would switch off power from about 5am to 11pm every day in most parts of the country as demand was way higher than the output from their aging coal power plants as well as the contribution the hydro power station at Kariba. Yes, that was over 18 hours without electricity every single day! This was a terrible experience.

At that time my research had been focusing on energy materials, mostly on radiation damage in materials for applications in fourth generation gas-cooled nuclear reactors. It was really fun stuff.  All those weekends in the particle accelerator always paid off as the results of our Ion Beam Analysis (IBA), along with our electron microscopy data, would take us all over the world to present at international conferences. We also got to travel to international laboratories to do several measurements with our partners at those labs as we had several collaborations where our international partners would visit us to use some of the equipment we had in Pretoria and vice versa.

In the middle of all this ion beam physics stuff, I always found time to look into the developments in the rooftop solar market. I had always been fond of the solar industry and followed developments in that space very closely. I had been following developments in the rooftop space in Australia, Germany, and the US, and regularly checking on all the cool solar and battery storage stories here on CleanTechnica. Australia was then one of the leaders in the rooftop solar market (and it still is) and so I also paid close attention to news coming from Australia in general. There has been so much progress in the rooftop solar market in Australia since I started following it. Australia’s Ministry for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction in March this year reported that 2021 was the fifth record-breaking year in a row for rooftop solar in Australia. In 2021, Australians installed approximately 380,000 new systems with a combined capacity of 3.2 GW. More than 3 million rooftops in Australia now have solar, bringing the total installed capacity to an awesome 17 GW! That’s a lot of progress over a few years.

Back to Zimbabwe in 2015. The 18-hour power cuts were unbearable. So, I began to think of how solar could be scaled up in this part of the world in a similar way to how it was booming overseas with the likes of SolarCity in the US.  I spoke with a few firms in Zimbabwe and in South Africa. I met with a number of engineering, procurement, and construction companies (EPCs), project developers, financiers, and some banks. The rooftop solar market was still essentially in its infancy in 2015 in East and Southern Africa. Early adopters in of rooftop solar were mostly cash rich firms that would buy the systems outright as there were limited financing options. Banks in this part of the world were only just starting to really get into funding the utility-scale solar side of things in a few countries and so did not play much in the nascent C&I space. Towards the end of 2015, I landed a job at one of the firms that was working to take solar PPAs mainstream in the residential and C&I markets in this part of the world. As we were doing the market analysis and building business cases for both residential and C&I solar across several markets in East and Southern Africa,  I began to look more closely at the booming solar PPA market in the US at that time to see what we could learn from it.

One of the major drivers of growth in the US solar sector has been the Investment Tax Credit (ITC). The US solar industry has grown by more than 10,000% since the introduction of the ITC, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and investing billions of dollars in the US economy in the process. Under the ITC, homeowners who own a solar system outright are eligible to claim the ITC. Companies that offer PPAs can also claim the ITC. When I started in the C&I and residential solar industry focusing on the East and Southern African markets, I quickly realized that some of these incentives to this level were not available in a lot of the markets in the solar industry in this part of the world, and the solar industry needed to grow on its own and through other innovative ways that players in the solar space around here would need to adopt.


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