03 May 2024

Caption: The Merak 2 & 3 PV projects cover approximately 4 square kilometres

Wilson Bayly Holmes-Ovcon (WBHO) Construction, together with our joint venture partner, the Sola Group completed the construction of one of Africa’s largest renewable energy projects under a Private Power Purchase Agreement in 2024. The Merak 2 & 3 PV projects cover approximately 4 square kilometres and will deliver power through a wheeling agreement to Tronox, a large player in the mining and minerals sector, thereby contributing considerably to the energy sustainability of the South African economy.

The Merak 2 & 3 solar plants are situated near Lichtenburg in the North West province. The Merak 3 plant achieved Commercial Operation (COD) in March 2024 and Merak 2 in April 2024. This comes after a construction period that started in September 2022. WBHO is the majority partner for the design, procurement, construction, installation, connection and commissioning of the respective 130MW and 126MW solar PV plant and grid works.

Apart from contributing to renewable energy in South Africa, the project is especially meaningful as a pioneering example of how involving rural communities in a project can foster shared growth and betterment.

“On arriving in the area, you could immediately notice the intense levels of need,” says Shabier Ismail, a Director in WBHO’s Projects Division. The area still experiences the impact of the severe social unrest in Lichtenburg and Coligny in April 2017. Violent protests are not uncommon in the area. “You meet the station commander at the police station. You meet the community leaders. You meet a councillor and they all tell you the unemployment in the ward is 90%, and then you realise you are not just here to build a project, you are here to make a difference.”

The project created over 800 local jobs. Dozens of sub-contractors were also hired from the surrounding area, including Bakerville, Grasfontein and Carlisonia.

As part of these projects, the WBHO Sola joint venture, in partnership with the employer, set aside a ringfenced budget for community initiatives during the construction period. This enabled the WBHO Sola JV to start a number of social initiatives such as: funding the establishment of vegetable gardens in communities; the repair of streetlights to increase night-time safety; the provision of 1000 school bags, stationary, sanitary packages, sports equipment, as well as Christmas gifts to local schools; the provision of transport for school learners to attend extra classes during the holidays and the North West University’s open day; and the establishment of a local soccer league of twelve teams with sponsored kits, equipment and tournaments.

“Companies simply can’t go in and just spend corporate social investment money. In the construction sector, and especially in Lichtenburg, we get to know the community in the area where the project happens, and we partner with them. You must invest in them. Their success is your success. I mean, people in the project team could tell you the improvements in the pass rates at JM Lekgetha Commercial High School, they were that passionate about it,” explains Ismail.

An example of this unique approach was when load shedding affected local water supply. WBHO and Sola stepped in and supplied generators for the pumps and assisted in distributing water in the community. For a period of 6 weeks, 46 million litres of water was supplied to the entire town of Lichtenburg and surrounding areas. This event underscored the wider need for a sustainable and dependable energy supply, something WBHO is committed to through numerous green energy construction developments.

Another initiative that set the Lichtenburg project apart was the months of training offered to Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) in the community. Senior WBHO personnel instructed emerging local businesspeople through management, marketing, logistics and other more technical construction-related courses. It was extended into a mentorship program, which now includes on-site work training.

The Merak 2 & 3 PV projects are representative of WBHO’s unique method of community involvement. A community’s identity, needs, and potential must be acknowledged. Greig Bastion, WBHO Project Director for these PV projects, underscores this approach: “A construction project must become part of the community. Big projects have the potential to leave a community with a better economy, better skills, and with better infrastructure, but also with hope and trust – we are all building a better place together.”

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