How a Solo Atlantic Voyage Tells the Energy Transition Story

“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Security is a myth”. This chilling Helen Keller quote was the finale to Zirk Botha’s recount to his fellow team members at juwi Renewable Energies of his remarkable 7200km transatlantic solo row from Cape Town, South Africa to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. juwi’s Economic Development Manager embarked on this epic voyage to raise awareness of climate change and the harmful impacts of irresponsible consumerism in December 2020 and completed in in February 2021.
Zirk’s purpose and voyage is metaphorical for the journey modern humans are on as we traverse a vast, sometimes seemingly empty expanse on the life raft that is our planet Earth.  Increasingly, many of us are starting to strive for a transition to sustainability for the sake of our future.
In the same way that Zirk had to survive for 71 days in a self-sustaining way using solar panels to power his life-saving water maker and navigation equipment, we collectively need to survive well into the future on our life-supporting planet with increasingly scarce resources. “What Zirk is doing is remarkable from an individual perspective. However, it is really symbolic because it is a proxy for the greater effort we all need to make both individually and collectively if we are to realise sustainability,” says Richard Doyle, Managing Director at juwi. “juwi’s vision is 100% renewable energy and it is increasingly clear that many businesses can get there with energy management and storage.  Zirk is a mini-example of this with the sun providing all of the navigation, communications and other electronic functions for his trip,” adds Doyle.
Unlike with Zirk’s voyage which came to an end when he got to Brazil, there is no destination for us where we can replenish our resources. While the planet is expected to survive for another 4 billion years before it is burned up by the sun, currently, our resource consumption, carbon emissions and impact on the planet are unsustainable, making the next few hundred years predictably apocalyptic.
Zirk recounts the first time he had to plunge into the open ocean to scrape the hull of his boat to remove barnacles which would increase his drag through the water. He described the eerie feeling of having over 4000m of water below him and being conscious but uncertain of what ocean giants might be lurking below. This dedication to caring for his boat is a lesson for how we should meticulously take every action to improve the health of our planet.
Zirk’s schedule entailed rowing for 10.5 hours a day for 71 days across an ever-changing ocean where swells would reach over eight meters high. He endured moments of being bucked within the raft, hoping for it not to capsize. One sobering element he describes was how the vast expanses of ocean that he traversed were seemingly largely devoid of life, apart from a patrolling shiver of fishing vessels on the hunt, visible only with his radar. Acknowledging this ecological exploitation makes one aware of the ways in which human impact is affecting the health of our planet and the animals we share it with.
But as with any great story, winds can change, and things can take a positive turn. Zirk describes majestic moments with nature that spurred him forward and revived his determination. These included marlins which passed within a few meters of his boat, close enough for the sunlight to strike their skin, illuminating their beauty and magnificent size. Another, with a pod of dolphin that swam alongside him as if in full support and encouragement. One can only imagine what other marvels lurked below as Zirk pushed on, on the surface, unable to see the great other world below.
Despite unimaginable challenges, we can achieve remarkable things when we choose to act. Zirk has set a world record for being the first solo rower to complete this southern transatlantic journey in record time. He has demonstrated that is it possible to meet our energy and water needs in a sustainable and renewable way. 100% renewable energy is indeed possible. Energy is the cornerstone of civilisations and intrinsically linked to prosperity.
In South Africa, it may seem that the energy system is in a state of stagnancy, however, the transition is indeed underway. The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REI4P) has been internationally recognised for its success in accelerating the energy transition. Despite this, renewable energy remains a fraction of the South African energy mix and energy supply remains unstable, carbon-intensive and heavily reliant on vast amounts of water to produce electricity using coal. While liberalising the transmission network is key to driving an energy transition, it is but one key on a bunch.
Renewable energy technologies can be distributed and modular enabling them to be dispatched where energy is needed, reducing the need for a transmission network. South African municipalities are in a unique position to drive the energy transition because many own their distribution networks and will soon be able to procure clean energy from independent power producers (IPPs). Furthermore, large energy consumers such as factories and mines are installing renewable energy where they need it, reducing their emissions profile, improving energy reliability and saving on energy bills. What is enabling this transition is cost and reliability. It is more cost effective per unit of energy to switch to clean energy. Furthermore, finance mechanisms and reputable installers are widely available, making switching to clean energy a “no-brainer” for any sensible cost-conscious entity.
juwi sponsored Zirk’s voyage because of the shared sense of purpose that Zirk’s mission has with juwi’s vision of sustainability and 100% renewable energy. Renewable energy is increasingly significantly more affordable than fossil-fuel-based sources of electricity. Businesses and individuals simply need to acknowledge this and act on it. Fortunately, many are. “Renewable energy investments made up 28% of the global total last year, up 2% on the previous year.  There is a steady shift in investment appetite away from fossil fuels and this percentage will only increase,” notes Richard Doyle, Managing Director of juwi South Africa.
It takes great acts to bring about great change. Thankfully the acts that the public and private sector can take to switch to renewable energy aren’t as extreme as rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. With over 4,800 MW installed comprising 1,700 solar plants and over 1000 wind turbines, juwi prides itself on being a leading partner for organisations looking to transition to clean energy.
“Dream big, do big, be willing to take risks and to be the change you want to see.” – Zirk Botha.

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