By: Christy van der Merwe
7th December 2009

A solar water heater (SWH) installation and maintenance training centre was launched on Monday, in Soweto at the Builders Training Centre, with the ambition of increasing local capacity for solar energy installation.

The project is part of a German public-private partnership. It is partially funded by German development bank Deutsche Investitions und Entwicklungs-gesellschaft (DEG), which contributed some €125 000 for the training programme over the next two years.

The other participants in the programme include: KwaZulu-Natal based aluminium manufacturing facility Alltube’s solar division Allsolar, which manages the training component of the programme; and German solar solutions manufacturer Schüco, which provided the SWH module equipment and expertise.

The first 16 participants in the pilot project have completed the first phase of their training – the plumbing module. The second component of the course includes a general course on solar energy, focusing on the basics of solar heating and installation. The third session will be conducted by an expert trainer from Schüco, focusing on specially designed Schüco SWH modules, as well as an engineer from Allsolar.

A further two groups would be trained at the centre by July 2010, which would ensure transfer of skills to 48 people - many of whom were previously unemployed, and 50% of whom would be women.

Schüco said that the products best suited to the South African needs were being used at the training centre, and are thermal collectors of the Schüco product line, and the company’s thermosiphon systems. The systems operate independently of the existing heating system, and do not need to be integrated as the closed system operates by force of gravity, requiring no circulating pump, electronic control or connection to the mains.

The Builders Training Centre (BTC) in Soweto is an initiative of the South African – German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AHK), and is accredited with the Construction Education and Training Authority, and sponsored by the Department of Labour and National Skills Fund. It was established in 1993, and courses offered include construction masonry (face bricklaying), construction carpentry (roofing), construction plumbing, and construction plastering and tiling.

“About 780 people a year are trained at the BTC, and SWH installation is a natural extension of the training scheme, and a very important one for South Africa,” said AHK CEO Matthias Boddenberg at the launch of the programme.

South Africa’s Department of Energy recently announced its ambition to roll out one-million SWHs by 2014 – an endeavour that would need many skilled installers to meet the target.

Allsolar operations director ME O’Brien stressed that hi-tech equipment needed hi-tech installation, and this needed to be monitored, because an incorrectly installed SWH meant that it would not deliver on its promises, which would hinder the industry as a whole.

“We must embrace the best management practice, and installation must be stable, controlled, the right equipment to install must be used, and there must be evidence to support that the system was installed properly,” added O’Brien.

“This initiative is a good example of a public-private partnership making a difference to sustainable energy and capacity building,” said German Embassy economic division counsellor Rodin Knapp, adding that it was a good meeting of German technology and investment with the needs of the environment and sustainable development in South Africa.

“Renewable energy and saving energy must happen now,” emphasised O’Brien, who noted that South African government seemed to be stuck in a groove of policy making, which meant that objectives were not clearly defined and implementation was slow.

Schüco and local partner Alltube said they were committed to providing ongoing educational support to address capacity constraints. “It is a basic company principle that Schüco products are only to be installed by qualified personnel, and its support for the training by Alltube will ensure the quality and effectiveness of its product line is not compromised,” said the company.

Trainees would not be contracted solely to Schüco, however, the programme would ensure that the company had a quality pool of skills to dip into, should it be awarded tenders in South Africa to provide SWHs.

Alltube, which specialises in heat exchangers for the automotive industry, made a decision to diversify into the solar industry, as many solar collectors use aluminium frames. The company handles the distribution of Schüco products from its head office in Pietermaritzburg.