Lockdown 2020: GeoSUN’s best year ever

Lockdown 2020: GeoSUN’s best year ever

For many people 2020 was a challenging year. Businesses closed down, people were retrenched, and South Africa’s economy took a turn for the worst. However, it was not doom and gloom for everyone, ask GeoSUN Africa; this company just had their best year ever in which they managed to grow their business substantially and employed more staff.

Launched in 2012, GeoSUN is spin-off company of Innovus and the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, when Prof Wicus van Niekerk was still head of the centre.  The company offers a variety of specialised services and product relating to the utility scale solar energy industry locally and in various Africa countries, South and Central America, the Pacific and Ukraine, to name but a few. GeoSUN 

Says Riaan Meyer, Managing Director of Geosun: “We assist with the transition from coal to the sun and our aim is helping to grow the solar industry globally.”  

According to him, they offer supporting services to developers, operators and owners of large solar plants. “Currently there are about 45 big solar plants in South Africa of 5 MWatt and more. Almost all of them are our clients.”

“It is an exceptional industry to work in, and our business grows simultaneously with the industry. What is even more exciting and in our favour is the fact that the cost of renewable energy, and especially solar, has declined dramatically in the last decade. The industry is also experiencing huge diversification; for example, we see how owners of large fishing farm installing solar panels on the water.”

Lockdown. What now?

When lockdown was announced, Riaan was in the coastal town of Vleesbaai. He very quickly realised that because the operating solar plants resorts under “essential services”, GeoSUN is therefore also an essential service. From her “new” home offices, Alyzza Jansen arranged the necessary permits, and after the initial five weeks of hard lockdown, the technicians were ready to start travelling and servicing their clients locally. The only difference was the travelling time: with no flights available, they had to drive by car across the country. 

Introducing his team, Riaan said each of his technicians had to adapt to new circumstances and a new way of working during lockdown, but it did not stop them from doing what they do best: looking after the needs of their clients.

If all else fails, write a manual

Technician Matthew Johnstone tells us how he had to write a comprehensive manual for his client in the Ivory Coast so that they can install a weather station themselves, as he was not able to travel there. “It was crazy. I started writing this comprehensive manual while building a weather station step-by-step in the office, taking photos as I go along. It took me two weeks to compile, where after I undertook a four-hour long training session over Zoom with the person who will be installing the station. Luckily, all went well, and I now have learned a new way to do things if we cannot be there ourselves.”

For him, the biggest challenge was the fact that a week-long trip would quickly turn into a two-week-long one because of issues they encountered along the way, like a guesthouse that was not willing to host them or additional procedures they had to follow to enter a new province. “But problem-solving is what we do best, and we overcame most of the issues that faced us. Our team is known for finding creative solutions to problems.”

For colleague Johan van Jaarsveld, lockdown had no significant influence on his work, as he is mainly responsible for analysing the data from weather stations and logging the problems encountered. “Most of the issues I could solve with emails and the odd WhatsApp call,” said he.

Caught in the middle of the ocean

Hannes Bester was in the middle of an installation job on the small island of Vanuatu close to Papua New Guinea when he was called back to South Africa before lockdown. He had to finish the installation job remotely working across timelines. Despite his mornings becoming evenings and other challenges that required of him to be extremely flexible in doing a manual job, he had to resort to communicating with emails, WhatsApp and even Facebook messenger. “Lockdown taught us how we can still do our job effectively by just doing it differently. We could work anywhere on our laptops, we could travel and get the job done.”

Johntay Terblanche is the latest addition to the GeoSUN team. He was appointed in the middle of lockdown. Johntay, who always had a passion for solar, quickly started his training and found himself on a few trips with the senior technician to start his on-site training.

Also, Werner Engelbrecht, who is mainly responsible for doing the calibrations of equipment on-site, had to take on the long roads and travel with the technicians to the various plants. “The first few weeks of lockdown also allowed me to write outstanding reports, do some research and catch up on work.”

Travel not-made-easy

Travel arrangements are not the most straightforward job in normal circumstances, but during lockdown and with COVID-19 tests that had to be become part of the travel arrangement, Alyzza had her work cut out for her. “Lockdown was a huge adjustment. I kept News24 open on my one screen and my emails on another. As new regulations were announced, I had to adjust the travel arrangements,” she said. Initially we considered to rent a motorhome for the technicians, but soon realized that each town had at least one guest house that was registered for essential services.

Alyzza said she recently had to book for the first time since lockdown, an international flight for Matthew to the Tanzania and Werner to Namibia. She had to make sure they go for a COVID-19 test, receive the results in time, board the plane and arrive on the other side in time to be tested again, as the test is only valid for 72 hours. Any delays will see her starting all travel arrangements from scratch. “But we managed the challenges and made it work,” says Alyzza who is very happy to be back in the office between the people she works with – something she missed a lot.

Riaan and his team are looking forward to normality again, but while the COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, at least they now know how to overcome them and even grow their business. They give new meaning to the phrase “in difficult times you grow”. “We remain grateful that we could continue with our business during this challenging year and even had to move to larger office space. This is due to employees, as well us clients, being willing to adapt. It was an all-hands-on deck situation. I want to commend the team since everybody had an exceptional attitude and contribution at all times”.

Alyzza Jansen

Eugene Barnard

Hannes Bester

Johan van Jaarsveldt

Johntay Terblanche

Mathew Johnstone

Riaan Meyer

Werner Engelbrecht