Women in Energy: Who is Karen Breytenbach and Why Should You Care?

Written by:

Jen Simpson

One of the Most Notable Women in Energy was Let Go

Despite the fact that the sector has come a long way, women in energy face a multitude of challenges. Last summer, Karen Breytenbach, a champion for renewable energy and, by all accounts, successful Head of South Africa’s Independent Power Producers Office, was unexpectedly asked to step down. The implications of the shift are being felt, not just by women in energy, but by the sector as a whole.

Breytenbach’s Contributions Cannot Be Overstated

The Independent Power Producers Office (IPPO) of South Africa was created in 2010, born out of necessity and designed by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), Department of Energy (DoE), and National Treasury. The agency’s aim is to ensure the country has enough energy to meet ongoing demands and support economic activity. It addresses it through a three-tiered approach, placing renewables at its core, followed by non-renewables and advisory services. When the agreement was renewed in 2016, according to the DBSA’s statement, Karen Breytenbach was working as a National Treasury consultant and was offered the role of IPPO Head.

Breytenbach brought attention to renewables, focusing on wind and solar power. Her actions drew interest from foreign investors, resulting in more than $15 billion being raised. “Her tenure has been characterized by the investment of R209 billion in the successful roll-out of 112 renewable energy projects,” DA shadow minister of mineral resources and energy Kevin Mileham says. “She achieved these feats without succumbing to corruption or political pressure.”

Chairperson of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Wido Schnabe concurs, stating the organization has been “impressed by the work that Karen and her team at the IPP Office have done in establishing the Renewable Energy IPP Programme, which has become a world-renowned and model procurement process for renewable energy.”

Details of Her July Removal are Sketchy

Despite her successes and bringing global recognition to women in energy, Breytenbach was asked to leave her position last July. “There was no reason,” Breytenbach told Bloomberg news. “They want to appoint someone else.” According to Breytenbach, she still had nine months remaining on her contract.

While the DBSA’s statement claims Breytenbach was let go because she reached their “mandatory retirement age of 60,” Mileham argues “If a person is on a fixed-term contract, you do not have a mandatory retirement age. If you are a permanent employee, it is a different story.” He believes the agency had ulterior motives in letting Breytenbach go.

“Breytenbach’s removal is indicative that minister Mantashe and his team are not in favor of a renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme (REIPPP) which alleviates fiscal pressure,” he contends.

Many expected the truth about Breytenbach's removal to become clearer as time passed, but no new information has emerged. The silence speaks volumes.

The Decision Impacts the Entire Community

“The political games of past years cannot be played if we are going to ensure energy security, build the economy and create jobs,” says Mileham. His words are backed by research. Data from E&Y concludes that the top 20% of gender-diverse utilities outperform the bottom by nearly 15%. Furthermore, just 16% of board members in the top 200 global utilities are women, with only 5% of executive positions being held by women. Considering that women in energy are far more likely to back renewables as well, the loss of Breytenbach will not only be felt by South Africa, but the entire energy sector, and the international community.

Be Part of the Shift

“You cannot solve a problem with half the team,” says senior gender expert at the African Development Bank Dana Elhassan. She’s right. She’s one of many who urge women across the globe to explore the options and consider the sector. If you’d like to take part in this monumental shift too, browse current openings for women in energy on Experience Energy and be part of the shift by joining Pink Petro.

Feature photo credit: Energynet.co.uk.

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