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Winning women: Wind talker

Oct 15 2017 06:00
Sue Grant-Marshall

Brenda Martin, CEO of the SA Wind Energy Association, has spent over a decade focusing her own considerable energy on creating climate change awareness, writes Sue Grant-Marshall 

It is 11 years since the publication of George Monbiot’s book Heat, which calls for a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, if we are “to avert catastrophic effects on both humans and ecosystems”.

The British author and environmental activist’s words resonated with the CEO of the SA Wind Energy Association (Sawea), Brenda Martin who, for the past 18 years, has worked at senior levels in the political science, sustainability, education and energy policy sectors in South Africa.

Now, in a time when torrential floods, devastating droughts and hurricanes are wreaking havoc on our world, Martin points out that we have only 12 years to go before Monbiot’s pivotal year of 2030.

Back in 2006, when Martin was director of the Goedgedacht Forum for Social Reflection, she decided to focus on climate change and energy conservation.

She didn’t just talk about it. She acted – and founded Project 90, reflecting the call for a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

“My focus was SA and it was two-pronged, concentrating on wealthy and poor communities,” she explains.

It was an innovative concept which so impressed a German funder that, within three days, they agreed to the “huge sum of money I asked for and, furthermore, said ‘start now’. They’d not considered the opportunities for poor households interested in mitigating climate change, as well as challenging wealthy ones to reduce their carbon footprint.”

Today Project 90, a national NGO, has won numerous awards for its work in improving energy, food and water security.

Its annual budget grew from an initial R800 000 to between R8 million and R10 million a year in 2014 – when Martin stepped down. “It’s important to know when to move on.”

Back then Martin and Project 90 targeted wealthy schools, households and businesses, urging them to use a computer-based calculator on which they had to track their carbon-saving data, using, for example, electricity bills.

The website was visited by about 47 000 people a month, “and at one stage the figures were jumping annually by one million”, says Martin.

To her surprise she found that other countries, such as Germany and Australia were using it too.

“Among lower-end income households and businesses we worked with 15 communities introducing solar or wind  power for many energy efficient measures.”

Much of the work was helping poor people to understand that they could power their needs without having to go on to the expensive electricity grid.

Martin was the chairperson of the SA Renewable Energy Council until recently.

She became CEO of Sawea a year ago and talks with quiet intensity about the government’s delay in feeding wind and solar energy into the national power grid.

She mentions a Port Elizabeth wind turbine manufacturing plant, that had over 200 workers.

“It had to close about a month ago due to reduction in demand for its products, given ongoing energy policy uncertainty.

“Now, there’s a similar factory in Atlantis in the Western Cape, which might have to retrench workers.”

She has no doubt that the South African government’s present focus on coal and nuclear will alter. “The world is changing and it’s not going to wait for us to catch up.”

Martin, who attended Goodhope College on the Cape Flats, was the first woman in her extended family to obtain a degree. Her garment factory worker mother and her print machine minder father always encouraged her.

She has her MPhil (2016) in energy and development from the University of Cape Town and has done leadership, climate change and sustainability courses at institutions ranging from Harvard Business School to Cambridge University and
Wits University.

Her three grown-up children tell her, “I’m a bit of a nerd because I can’t stop studying”, she chuckles.

Her dissertation for her MPhil analysed the politics of electricity planning, particularly as it related to renewable energy and nuclear power policy.

She had been doing research into the latter for some years and was curious about why the government pursued nuclear so avidly.

It became clear to Martin that the emphasis on a nuclear deal was often associated with President Jacob Zuma. “He’d been pushing it hard since 2010.”

She believes that South Africans are “in the frame of mind that says, it’s enough now. We’ve seen too much potential being laid waste.”

She feels that the renewable energy industry will succeed “in its determination to contribute to SA’s power mix”.

We’ll be hearing a great deal more from this passionate, determined CEO.

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