Terra Firma Academy interviewed Josch Thilo about his job as a solar expert and Senior Engineer at Terra Firma Solutions.

Tell us about your daily job.

I spend a lot of time assessing opportunities of potential Solar-PV systems and explaining to clients what is and what isn’t possible with the current technology. Once a promising project has been identified, a detailed design must be done. When this is complete, I support the project managers in implementing the projects.

Where did you get your qualifications?

I completed an undergraduate Mechatronics Engineering Degree at the University of Cape Town. After this I completed a multidisciplinary Master’s program in “Energy Science and Technology” at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich Switzerland. During my Master’s program I focused on Power Electronic Systems which are widely used in renewable energy technologies such as Solar-PV.

Why did you want to move into the solar energy field?

I have always been fascinated by Solar Energy particularly Solar PV and believe it has a key role to play in our future energy supply. Like with all new technologies, there are many interesting technical challenges which keeps things interesting from an engineering perspective.

Is there a big demand for skilled solar PV specialists in South Africa?

The industry is still fairly small and young in this country. However, with the new incentive programmes for renewable energy systems and governments very successful Independent Power Producer (IPP) program the industry is growing very quickly. This is now starting to translate into a big demand for skilled solar PV specialists.

Do you think one needs an engineering degree to work in the solar PV industry?

Most jobs in the Solar-PV industry do not require an engineering degree. On the one hand there are technical jobs that do not require engineering degrees (e.g. installers) and on the other hand there is also a whole host of peripheral services that the Solar PV industry requires such as lawyers, accountants and administrative staff. Engineers only make up a relatively small percentage of people working in the Solar-PV sector.

What percentages of savings can an average office block expect if solar PV would be installed on their roof?

There are too many factors that affect the percentage savings of a typical office block. The payback period for roof-top PV systems in South Africa is typically around 5 years. However, if financed and structured correctly Solar PV systems can be cash flow positive in their first year of operation.

Is there a possibility to sell energy surplus produced through solar PV?

Currently, this is only possible for very large scale Solar-PV projects registered under governments Independent Power Producer’s (IPP) Program. Most roof-top installations would not qualify for this program. However, some municipalities in South Africa are working hard to allow users to sell electricity generated with Solar-PV back to the grid. However, currently; only a bill reduction is possible in most municipalities. An interesting opportunity exists for property owners to sell energy produced by Solar-PV to their tenants. There is no doubt in my mind that selling of solar-PV generated electricity to the grid will become common practice in South Africa in the next few years.

Can you tell us anything about future demand of solar PV in South Africa?

Solar-PV prices have been decreasing very rapidly in recent years. At the same time, electricity prices in South Africa have been rising shapely and are expected to double again in the next five years. This means Solar-PV is becoming an extremely attractive alternative for forward thinking businesses and individuals. Already today, businesses and private households are realising the economic potential of using their roof to generate their own affordable and environmentally friendly energy. I strongly believe that there is massive potential for growth in the Solar-PV Industry in South Africa. With its abundant sunshine, South Africa can have a sustainable Solar-PV industry even without subsidies which have enabled the Solar Industry to establish itself in e.g. Europe.

What would you like to say to people wanting to study the Solar PV Feasibility Assessment course?

It certainly is an exciting time to become involved in the Solar-PV industry in South Africa. I think this course will give people a unique insight into the industry and allow them to understand where the opportunities and challenges lie for Solar-PV in South Africa.