80-year-old energy expert and economist graduates with PhD

When Rob Jeffrey set out doing analyses of energy sources as a consultant in South Africa, obtaining a PhD at the age of 80 was not what he had planned. But, as he delved into the literature on energy sources and how they interface with the economy, a PhD came as an unbudgeted-for bonus.

On 23 March, Jeffrey graduated with his PhD from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) which described his research as “an independent economic analysis of the electricity generation industry in South Africa and an assessment of the best course of action that the country can take to develop its electricity generation resources”.

His study, over four years, considered the impact of the reliability of power supply – be it fossil fuel or renewable – on the development of a country’s economy. It was done at a time when load-shedding has caused economic destruction in South Africa and Jeffrey hopes his insights can make societal impact.

The doctorate is titled, ‘Assessing the actual costs of alternative electricity-generating technologies in South Africa in line with its economic development requirements’.


Jeffrey was born in October 1942 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Both his parents were teachers. His father was a science teacher and deputy headmaster of St John’s College in the city, a school he also attended.

After school, he studied at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa where he received a BSc degree in 1965 in applied mathematics (with a distinction) and mathematical statistics. He then got a scholarship to pursue a masters in economics at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Upon his return, he completed a teacher’s diploma and, in 1976, a masters in business leadership (MBL) at the University of South Africa (UNISA) with distinction.

After a long career, Jeffrey retired in 2016 as the managing director of Econometrix, an economic consultancy. His work on the economy, energy and business has convinced him that South Africa should have three main objectives: a reduction in poverty, an increase in employment and a reduction in inequality.

Jeffrey believes this can be achieved by improving the economic growth of the country through increasing the amount of electricity for mining, manufacturing and other sectors.

“Having written much on it [economic growth through reliable electricity], I decided if it can be a PhD … so be it. But the PhD, itself, was not the prime motive. I have been involved in business for 50 years starting in finance, moving to work in construction and energy evaluation and work on mergers, acquisitions, and capital projects in a variety of industries.

“When I decided on retirement to write up the knowledge that I had acquired I [followed the advice of] many senior people who encouraged me.”

But the ultimate decision to pursue a PhD was his own, said Jeffrey, who also wanted to work purposefully on a project after losing the use of his legs, which left him wheelchair-bound.

Despite obtaining a PhD, Jeffrey said it is important to realise that South Africa has a great need for technically trained individuals who do not necessarily have to have degrees but are well-trained in technical work.

Lifelong learning

Jeffrey said he chose the University of Johannesburg for his PhD studies because he had heard a lot about how the university supports its students.

“I was lucky enough to work under Professor Andre Nel of the faculty of engineering and the built environment,” said the grandfather of eight.

“One must recognise that one is learning for the rest of one’s life. As you follow your career, you have to learn and remain on top. I happen to have increased my knowledge in business – and finance subjects were vital to carry me forward.”

Early last month, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed an electricity minister in an eagerly awaited cabinet reshuffle and the newly introduced electricity portfolio that falls under the Presidency.

But what are Jeffrey’s thoughts on ending South Africa’s energy crisis?

“High efficiency and low-emission coal-fired power stations and nuclear power stations are the best and most efficient sources of generating electricity for base load because they are more reliable, efficient and have a far lower cost.

“Coal and nuclear are the best sources of energy that can be produced most of the time. At the moment, they are not being produced efficiently, [so] you need to upgrade coal plants.

“Some of the major power economies such as India, China and Indonesia have their attention on coal and nuclear, based on what we call base load power, that is, power required on a permanent basis.

“Renewables are not able to do that. Solar may not be there at night. You need 100% backup, I’m afraid. What is needed are high-efficiency, low-emission coal plants. They are the ones that must be used in the future.”

What is next for Jeffrey?

“One never stops furthering one’s education. I will continue with my interest in energy and economics for the benefit of South Africa and South Africans. I will also pursue my general interest in international and domestic economics. I will also pursue my hobbies and interests in photography, astronomy and bridge.”