The name Sulana de Jager may not ring a bell to many but she is certainly counted among the few women who are blazing the trail in the solar energy sector. Like in most sectors, the number of female in the renewable energy space, let alone science, is insignificant compared with their male counterparts.
De Jager is the current plant manager at De Aar Solar Power, a position she held since 2016 when she joined the renewable energy sector.
As the world transitions from fossil fuel to cleaner, environmentally-friendly and de-cabornised energy sources to mitigate the impact of the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), renewable energy sources have become the holy grail of the energy industry.
South Africa is one of the countries that are under mounting pressure to implement concrete measures to reduce its carbon footprint and become a ‘net-zero economy’ by 2050. According to the recent environmental statistics, the country is the world’s 14th largest emitter of GHGs and the main air polluter in Africa. Its CO2 emissions are primarily blamed on its heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity generation fleet.
In 2011 South Africa launched the ‘Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement’ (REIPPP) programme to procure alternative sustainable energy. De Aar is among some of the first solar energy plants that are assisting the country to shift to clean energy production. At present, the plant is supplying Eskom with 85 458 MWh per year.
De Jager is a strong proponent of independent power producers’ programme with mini-grid systems as the key components. Energy experts across the world strongly recommend mini-grid systems because they are decentralised and independent electricity networks that can functions efficiently and separately from a national grid. They are seen as particularly ideal for Africa which has a huge backlog in rural infrastructure development programmes whose implementation depends mainly on the availability of consistent supply of electricity.
De Jager said mini-grid systems are most suited for rural communities as they do not require huge cable infrastructure layout and the villages are some distance apart. To provide efficient and cost-efficient electricity to communities in these locations, she argued, mini-grid systems are the most ideal.
De Jager’s entry into the renewable energy sector was made possible by Globeleq Scholarship Fund which she received while studying mechatronics at the Cape Peninsular University of Technology. Upon completing her studies, she continued to upgrade her skills by taking various wind turbine technician training courses.
Equipped with these skillset and the experience, De Jager joined Globeleq operational team and later became a permanent employee at the De Aar Solar Power as an accomplished solar technician.
She said she is excited to be working in the renewable energy space particularly as a woman. But De Jager said she had to navigate some obstacles and hurdles on her journey to where she is presently. But overall, she found the sector has been welcoming and empowering to her as a woman, adding the engineering field is both challenging and rewarding.
As she is among the first women who hold a top position in the solar energy industry, De Jager is an inspiration to young women. Her message to them is that they should work hard, own their mistakes and be willing to learn.