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Rooftop projects boost clean energy

- Wits University

There are 14 solar installations across Wits to promote environmental and financial sustainability. This is in addition to the hybrid hot water system.

Rooftop solar energy support drive to reduce carbon emissions and generate renewable energy

It’s the start of the first full year since the Wits Sustainability Strategy towards a net zero future by 2050 was adopted in August 2023.

The past six months has been marked by consolidating existing projects and initiatives on campus, raising awareness that the strategy is in place, laying the groundwork for what comes next and also ensuring that there is flexibility and durability to a living document that must itself be resilient in facing unforeseen challenges.

It’s challenges that include navigating pressures from a city in flux; working within tighter inflationary and budgetary pressure and also responding to the reality that climate change impacts are arriving in a rush in Wits’ home city of Johannesburg, even as energy and water supplies are regularly interrupted even as demands surge.  

Jason Huang is the Acting Director for Campus Planning and Development and the Planning and Development Manager for Wits.  He is also part of the university’s Sustainability Committee set up by Professor Imraan Valodia, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Climate, Sustainability and Inequality and Professor Ian Jandrell, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Systems and Operations. The committee worked on drafting the guiding strategy and vision for 2050 that was approved by Senate in August 2023.

Huang says currently there are 14 solar installations which comprise of a mix of photovoltaic systems and hot water systems across the university’s campuses that have been an investment of about R30 million at this stage (see list below). These represent 1700 kilowatt peak of installed capacity.

But he says: “Our photovoltaic systems have just over a megawatt of installed capacity. But at peak demand in winter the university uses 14 megawatts a day. Even on Christmas Day, which is one of the days in the year when we have the lowest demand, we are still using about four megawatts a day.”

It means solar still doesn’t cover a significant amount of the university’s electricity needs and there is currently also no battery storage because there is no excess renewable energy production. The university still has to rely on “cheap and dirty” diesel-run generator for back-up power during loadshedding and power outages.

It’s not ideal Huang admits, but he says funding is becoming a massive constraint. For instance, he says that the site preparation costs to install solar are rocketing, sometimes double the costs of solar installations. “It is encouraging that we are seeing a reduction in costs of solar of about 20% from when we first started our installation just over six years ago. But because of our ageing infrastructure as a university that is over 100 years we face high costs for things like waterproofing, structural work, electrical compliance and lightning protection,” he says.

Constraints of an urban university

Huang says being a city-based university is also limiting as Wits simply doesn’t have the physical space to install large capacity solar systems. There is also currently no access to wheel clean energy from private suppliers because regulation hasn’t been liberalised to allow for this. Added to this, he says the most recent budgets approved are only about a fifth of what’s needed to significantly ramp up installations to stay on track with the university’s own just energy transition targets.

“Right now we don’t have very easy mechanisms or a very easy environment in which to operate, which makes it that much more difficult for us to start to move towards our net zero targets by 2050,” he says.

But despite the obstacles ahead, Huang says there are reasons to be optimistic. One key reason for him is that the sustainability strategy exists and sets out a clear vision of what Wits wants to achieve. The Wits Sustainability Strategy covers other thematic issues including water, waste and transport. Huang says the next phase will be to enlarge the focus on these equally important areas of the vision for a net zero carbon emissions future.

Using research for good

He says the strategy is a signal that climate challenges are being viewed seriously – it creates a space to innovate, to collaborate and to tackle problems head on, rather than to be defeated by them, he says.

Huang says Wits as a key institution and asset for the City of Johannesburg has also been able to step up to play a stronger role amidst crises like power shedding, water shedding and piped gas shedding. Building networks and partnerships, he says, is part of building resilience for a city under pressure and its people.

“We work very closely with the city and we are leaning into their problems so that we can understand their constraints and have the insights that allow us to can look for solutions differently,” he says. He adds that the private sector is also re-examining its role and responding differently. He calls this a "beautiful thing" when corporates recognise that they need to be more proactive and need to take more responsibility.

And there are technological advances that Huang says promises to allow for leapfrogging problems. As being a university, Wits is exposed to and at the forefront of research, development and problem solving that Huang says will be at heart of tackling the climate change crisis.

“We keep abreast of what’s out there and right now we are trying to build more momentum. Raising more awareness and garnering more support is how we get more funding and also how we get people to understand that 26 years is not a lot a of time. So we have to move faster and we all have a role to play if we are to achieve our climate goals by 2050,” he says.

Photovoltaic installations:





WITS Health Science



WITS Construction Economics and Management Building



WITS Goldfields Laboratory



WITS T.W Khambule Mathematical Sciences



WITS Origins Centre



WITS Robert Sobukwe Block






WITS Wellness Centre



WITS Agincourt



WITS Rural








Solar hot water installations:





WITS Junction Residence



WITS Barnato Hall



WITS David Webster Hall