Stellenbosch Network Entrepreneur of The Month: Green X Engineering

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(Left to right: Co-Founders Mario Roos and Jason Samuels)

A Brighter Future: Green X Engineering is helping schools become energy-wise with new technology and new thinking

In December 2020, the Department of Energy and Mineral Resources introduced new regulations demanding that all non-residential buildings must complete a full audit of their energy usage and declare their findings. Moreover, if buildings are found to be using too much electricity, the new policy dictates that active measures be taken to reduce the numbers to acceptable levels. It’s a move made in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to combat climate change.

To enforce the ruling, national government has said that any building that fails to comply will be breaking the law. The problem is, however, that South Africans have only been given two years to complete this timely and expensive process – a predicament complicated by the fact that government hasn’t been the most helpful in rolling out the new rules. The question now is whether government facilities in poorer and under-serviced areas will be able to adapt in time.

Thankfully, Green X Engineering has stepped in to lead the way, having just completed the country’s most successful energy audit and fix to date for a school right here in Stellenbosch.

Out with the old, in with the new

Cofounded in early 2021 by Jason Samuels, Prof. Thinus Booysen, Prof. Saartjie Grobbelaar and Mario Roos, Green X Engineering is promoting sustainability by helping clients and communities improve their energy and environmental impact by helping them understand, optimise, and reduce their electricity usage. In doing so, the company specialises in analysing energy usage in buildings, retrofitting them with energy-wise electrics, and promoting sustainable human behaviour when it comes to energy consumption.

“The company was spawned out of research that I was doing at Stellenbosch University in 2019 with the electrical and electronic engineering department,” says Samuels. “I had just finished a contract at Eskom when Prof. Thinus offered me an opportunity to investigate energy usage in local schools. We were particularly interested in exploring how schools in less privileged areas – and particularly those with older buildings – were using electricity and potential ways of improving not just how much they used, but also how we could reduce costs and make these schools more financially sound. On the other hand, I would also get the chance to contribute to the community I grew up in – what a privilege!”

With the help of both Prof. Booysen and Prof. Grobbelaar, they discovered that older school buildings were using a significant portion of their energy on lighting – specifically, fluorescent lighting dating back to their construction several decades ago. “They were all old apartheid-era buildings and hadn’t been upgraded to be more energy-savvy,” recalls Samuels.

For the next step, the trio wanted to see what impact newer lighting technology would have on schools’ energy usage. They approached Roos, the owner of a specialised lighting and electrical maintenance company, who agreed to retrofit the schools with energy-wise LED lighting.

“We started with one location in Stellenbosch and took out all the old fluorescent lights. These lights had mercury in them and were carbon heavy. But just this one intervention reduced the energy usage of the school by 60% and costs by 40%,” explains Roos. “We published the results and went to the Western Cape Education Department to ask them to extend the trial to more institutions around the province. They approved our proposal and gave us funding for 12 more schools, which later expanded to 25 when Stellenbosch University came on board with additional support.”

Positive energy and a milestone in Cloetesville

The team spent the next year traveling from school to school, completing analyses and retrofits when in early 2021, Roos suggested the group formalise their partnership into a business.

“Mario had hinted at the idea before then, but it was only with the announcement of the new energy regulations in December 2020 that we really got excited by the idea of becoming business partners,” says Samuels.

Roos adds, “There was a gap in the market, and we decided to take it. We were already in the industry, analysing schools, modelling the data, installing smart meters and dashboarding the information. We felt there was an opportunity to use our success to date as a launchpad for the business.”

Since then, Green X Engineering has retrofitted the lighting in all 25 assigned schools around Stellenbosch. As a result, the team estimates that they’ve saved roughly 120kg of carbon emissions per school per day, with a proposal now on the table to extend their work to all 1,600 schools in the Western Cape.

“A highlight for us was a school in Cloetesville, where we were recently awarded an A-Rated Energy Performance Certificate for our efforts – the highest rating you can get, and the first to be completed for a school in South Africa,” says Roos.

But Green X Engineering’s work goes beyond swapping out old tech for new tech. At the same time, the team is also trying to stimulate behavioural changes in schools, by showing learners and teachers how to be more energy-wise and ways of improving their energy usage.

“It all feeds into our twofold purpose as a business,” shares Roos. “First and foremost, it’s about creating conducive learning environments. This requires adequate lighting, which is a struggle considering the challenges experienced at Eskom. By installing energy-efficient lights, we reduce the burden on the national grid, while at the same time driving down costs for institutions in historically less privileged areas.

“Second is our focus on the environment. From a carbon perspective, we need to take out more emissions from the atmosphere and environment to make the earth more sustainable. In the next two years, we’re aiming to take out close to 500,000 tons of carbon emissions per annum with just the 1,600 retrofitted schools in the Western Cape. This would be a significant achievement and will be made only greater when we address all the schools in the country.”

Looking ahead

However, schools are just the first stop for Green X Engineering. In the future, the team is planning to branch out into hospitals, factories and other commercial industries as well.

“There are about 100,000 buildings owned by various government departments – not to mention private industry – and they’ve all been given just two years to become compliant,” points out Roos. “Eventually, we want to take them all completely off the grid using solar energy and explore how these buildings could actually put energy back into the system. Doing so wouldn’t just ensure consistent power supply, but a new revenue source that could be used to fund social programmes and quality of life improvements.”

“But for now, we’ll be focusing on getting schools up to scratch,” concludes Samuels.

To learn more about Green X Engineering, go to www.gxe.co.za

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