Harvesting diamonds from the sky

Hello sunshine: SEB has more than 8.6MW of projects in the pipeline
Hello sunshine: SEB has more than 8.6MW of projects in the pipeline

As the world transitions from fossil fuels to green energy, a wholly citizen-owned firm, Sustainable Energy Botswana, has become the first fully registered engineering, procurement and construction company providing the full array of clean energy services. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI speaks to its founder, Eunice Ntobedzi

Eunice Ntobedzi has enjoyed an illustrious career. A graduate of the University of Pretoria and following sponsorship from the UK government via a Chevening scholarship, Ntobedzi was awarded her MSc in Management (Enterprise & Business Growth) by the famous Adam Smith Business School University of Glasgow. She was then offered an exceptional talent Visa by the United Kingdom (UK) Government but decided to return to Botswana to develop her business ideas.

In 2018, the Innovate UK Energy Catalyst programme awarded its largest grant to collaboration partners of which Ntobedzi was the African partner. She founded African Sustainable Energy (ASE) in late 2020 to commercialise research funded by the UK Innovation agency ‘Innovate UK’.

Following two further funding awards, ASE was empowered to commercialise new technologies and bring them to market.

The company has rapidly expanded in 2021 and now employs eight people full time and several consultants. Also this year, ASE formed a new Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) called Sustainable Energy Botswana (SEB) with Dithologo Mmile, to create an investment arm.

ASE also operates outside of Botswana in Malawi and Zimbabwe, where it has a team. The company is currently closing with international venture capital a significant investment to grow the business in the region.

This will considerably benefit Batswana as the local company SEB will recruit new staff to support the growth.

SEB has built 14 projects in 2021 and has a pipeline of over 8.6MW.

Ntobedzi takes Mmegi through the company, its projects and her views on the debate raging about coal-dependent economies such as Botswana transitioning to clean energy.

Mmegi: Briefly outline SEB’s work in Botswana, the type of products and services it is involved in and the market’s response to these?Ntobedzi: SEB is the first fully registered and approved EPC company in Botswana to provide the full array of expected services. These include design, development, finance, build as well as operation and maintenance services.

SEB is a clean energy company delivering both on-grid and off-grid services.

SEB also provides clean energy to support productive energy use requirements, e.g., to support a full range of agricultural activities.

We build turnkey solar projects for clients and invest in our projects or establish SPVs to enable our clients to participate.

SEB has also established a new clean energy SPV with other partners and project developers in Botswana.

SEB has an investment portfolio and accesses a global community of investors willing to participate in Botswana and the bankable region projects.

SEB is also an innovation technology developer and secured significant funding from agencies like the UK Innovation agency ‘Innovate UK’ and the European Union to partner with cleantech research facilities and European technology manufacturers.

Working with these partners, SEB has secured the intellectual property and manufacturing rights to these technologies to manufacture and assemble these technologies in Botswana for use in-country and export.

SEB is a data-driven company and has its online monitoring and reporting platform to enable the design, development and monitoring of our installations.

Mmegi: How supportive has the government been of SEB’s work?Ntobedzi: Government policy and regulatory framework support the diversification of the energy producers like SEB.

The new Botswana Power Corporation/ Power Africa rooftop solar has considerably stimulated market interest. This is a first for the SADC region. With our latest technology, the 3s smart solar PV/Thermal technology supported by our own intelligent energy management platform, the local grid is much smarter. This programme should be thoroughly reviewed and evaluated, resulting in an expansion of the programme size.

In 2019, we wrote to The Office of the President and ministers suggesting they consider developing a programme for 10 small utility-scale solar projects to diversify the energy mix, create new employment opportunities and develop the local clean technology market. These recommendations were fully supported, and the solar programme was announced six months later.

The drivers are at present coming from the commercial sector, which is having to respond to global pressures. Access to finance is now climate-responsive. Customers demand climate action, increasing regulatory requirements impacting insurance companies, pension funds, and investors looking for less exposure to climate risk investments.

Mmegi: Solar and other renewable energy have been criticised as being expensive and not fit for purpose at a national level due to the need for baseload power? What is your response or experience in this regard?

Ntobedzi: Solar is now the cheapest form of energy today and considerably more affordable than old technologies like coal.

Fifty percent of the global energy investment last year was in solar PV. Solar only works during daylight hours and needs a hybrid system to work outside of these parameters. When supported by storage technology, it can provide 24/7 clean energy.

The Government of Botswana has confirmed a commitment for renewables in their integrated resource plan; the new generation will be 81% of the energy mix by 2040.

There are and have been several barriers to the rapid adoption of the technology:

1) The CAPEX costs – our new climate-smart loan product will help support CAPEX costs

2) Lack of qualified, trained, experienced local engineers to instal – our Solar Apprenticeship programme has trained over 100 young people some of whom we have recruited to the team.

3) Lack of quality control over equipment available has seen installations fail – SEB only uses the very best world-class technologies backed by bankable warranties and guarantees.

Mmegi: At COP26, Botswana has committed to easing its coal and other fossil fuels while exploring new cleaner solutions. However, the country declined to commit to not issuing new coal licences. What is your reaction?Mmegi: Batswana need to lift their heads skyward and ‘Harvest the Botswana Diamonds in the Sky’. Investors and the world are rapidly turning their back on old technology and fossil fuel. We need to embrace the change rapidly to a new clean, carbon-free economy to attract investors and visitors to Botswana.

Change management always has winners and losers – the key is to focus on creating a new clean energy economy. The problem is the inertia and resistance to change driven by a lack of knowledge and a fear of change.

Commercial companies and investors are walking away from coal. Look at Shumba Energy once peddling investments into their coal projects but unable to find investors and now developing large grid-tied solar projects and securing investment.

Mmegi: African countries have said they feel unfairly targeted by developed nations to fight against new coal and fossil fuel projects. In South Africa, critics have pointed out that the $8.5 billion pledged to help the ‘energy transition’ is not all grants, but also low-interest loans. What would you suggest should be Botswana’s approach to weaning itself off fossil fuels?

Ntobedzi: Botswana, whilst it is the world’s most dependent country on fossil fuels for its electrical generation, has already made public its commitment to a clean energy transition and 81% of all new generation requirements will be from renewables.

Botswana knows it will have difficulty finding investors for its plans to expand its coal use. Botswana also knows the global investment community is queuing up to invest in renewables.

The recent announcement and signing of the MoU with Power Africa for the 5GW solar development in partnership with Namibia is a further indication of the government’s advance towards renewables.

We have had advanced discussions with several development finance institutions for climate finance, especially clean energy transition.

Mmegi: Another criticism of the energy transition is that renewable energy jobs are front-loaded, creating more employment during construction rather than operation. Critics say this would result in massive unemployment should the fossil fuel sector shut down overnight, particularly as it has an extensive downstream industry such as logistics. How can Botswana navigate such issues?

Ntobedzi: The transition to a low carbon economy should be a managed process to address social and economic impacts. The critical question is, does Botswana want to be proactive rather than reactive in the transition process?

Botswana should learn from countries like Scotland that were once totally dependent on fossil fuel and have now successfully shifted to a low carbon economy, creating more jobs and growth in their economy. The clean energy transition in Scotland from a fossil fuel-based economy to one which is now 100% renewables started in 2008 (13 years). Ireland is also undergoing the same transition.

Both these economies have synergies with Botswana.

Botswana should transition from peddling – like typewriters, a redundant old technology, and join the rest of the world like buying word processing AI technology.

Mmegi: Your last thoughts?

Ntobedzi: If we look around the globe it is clear we are shifting from the centuries’ old dirty technology dependent on fossil fuels to new cleaner renewable technologies. This drive is happening in response to the climate crisis facing humankind and is also cost-driven. Renewables and especially solar, are cheaper and more reliable. As they say, the sun gets up every morning without fail, never late, always on time. Botswana has been blessed with one of the best solar potentials in the world.

It’s time to embrace the gift we have been given.

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