Sonn’s ‘lofty’ renewable energy ideals
Melanie Gosling | Environment Writer
HEATHER Sonn, chair of the SA Wind Energy Association’s (Sawea) board, is upbeat about renewable energy – and not just because costs have come down to make it competitive with coal.
What makes this form of electricity generation different are the spin-offs for socio-economic development.
“And I am also struck by the alignment of renewable energy with several international policies, such as alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals,” Sonn said.
Sonn, the third woman to chair SAWEA after Jasandra Nyker and Dipolelo Elford, is preparing for the wind energy sector’s Windaba conference next month, which she believes will not only provide a platform for exchange of information and ideas with delegates from other countries, but also to enable the industry to get to grips with core issues to help it to remove obstacles to growth.
“I also hope the conference can set a collective vision so we can unlock the full potential of this industry in our country.”
She laughs: “Okay, those are lofty ideals, but then I’ve never been anything but lofty.”
Sonn, a financial investor who studied in the US, runs Gamiro Investment Group, which raises finance to buy renewable energy projects from developers who have done the groundwork. Her company then takes the project to the next phase and bids in the government’s renewable energy programme to build the projects.
The company has won two bids in round four of the programme to build two 140 megawatt wind farms.
“Our motto is ‘do well, do good’. What attracted us to the renewable energy programme is that as well as the positive commercial returns, 1 percent of the project’s profit has to be used for social economic and enterprise development. So it can drive social agendas, and it also has a component for black ownership.”
Sonn, daughter of an academic and ambassador to the US appointed by former president Nelson Mandela, Franklin Sonn, grew up in Athlone and won a scholarship to study in the US. She did postgraduate study in international affairs with a business focus, and then worked for Merrill Lynch for two years.
“But I always had the view that I would come back, so I did and ran a stockbroker company in Joburg.”
“I decided the capitalist idea was interesting, but it was not going to change if there was not some structural change. My husband is a derivative banker and we both decided to get into the social sector, to look at the experience of the poor.”
They bought land in Hout Bay and started an organic farm for the benefit of the poor, but started to run out of money. It was then they decided to start Gamiro, which focused on being commercially successful, but also on making a real contribution to social development. The renewable energy programme fitted the bill.