In partnership with:

Jamie Cross

Declan Murray

What happens to small-scale solar technologies when they cease to operate or break down?

As governments, international development donors and the off grid solar industry have sought to address emerging challenges around e-waste solar technologies in Sub Saharan Africa a dominant technology-finance answer to this question has emerged. This answer has focused on the production and measurement of e-waste, and has led to a set of policy recommendations and pathways for action focused on centralised take back and recycling schemes.

As we have shown in this paper, a different but equally important answer to this question is that broken solar powered things do not immediately become electrical or electronic ‘waste’. On the contrary, when off-grid solar products stop working they reveal the range of social, cultural and economic activity around disposal, storage, retrieval, repair, and reworking. Breakdowns, as countless social studies of waste remind us, make things visible [1].

In this paper we set out to challenge an emerging consensus on solar waste in Sub Saharan Africa. First, on its own terms, by questioning current methodologies for estimating volumes. Second, because an emerging consensus equates the ‘end of life’ with waste. Third, because this emerging consensus is establishing and entrenching a specific set of solutions.

These solutions – in common with approaches to ‘extended producer responsibility’ across other electronic industries and sectors – shift responsibilities away from production and manufacture. They create few incentives for off grid solar manufacturers to rethink the design of off grid products, to reduce or eliminate the use of un-recyclable plastics, or to extend the working life of products by designing for reparability. These solutions render invisible the broader ecosystem of repair and maintenance work, in which productive repurposing and re-use is an important part of livelihoods. Instead, they focus industry attention on centralised or centrally managed take back schemes, collection strategies and recycling infrastructures. Yet little, if any, of this infrastructure currently exists, as the DFID-funded report itself recognises [2].

The perspectives and empirical data presented in this paper have offered alternative ways for conceptualising solar waste and pathways for action. As we have shown, in Kenya the parts and components of broken solar systems retain a potential use value for users and repair workers. Rather than emphasise broken devices as ‘problems’ to be managed we have sought to reflect on the ways that parts and components are used and re-used. In Kenya broken solar systems join an entire world of broken consumer goods, for which there are existing networks, practices and responses. These networks, practices and responses have accommodated or are adapting to the off grid solar industry; absorbing new materials and component parts.

What can energy research and energy practice learn from the afterlives of solar power in Kenya? In this paper we have shown that the off grid solar industry demands to be subjected to the same scrutiny as other industries, with the aim of supporting a more just or equitable solar economy. As we showed, ideas of energy justice are central to the claims and activities of the off grid solar industry. Indeed, the very challenge of accelerating access to energy is a question of distribution, albeit one that is framed by the market. Yet the burgeoning scholarship on energy justice has yet to fully engage with what happens when renewable energy products reach the apparent end of their working lives.

Energy justice is not just the distribution of access to energy (and appliances). But also, we propose, about waste and repair, about access to materials and parts, and access to designs and knowledge. We must look at distribution of risks and harms that comes with expanding energy access – where are they? And who faces them? Energy justice needs to be about procedural justice too. Rather than focus on absent or non-existent recycling facilities, we argue that sustainable pathways to energy access in Sub Saharan Africa hinge on the willingness of the solar industry to acknowledge and engage with an existent, vibrant and diverse repair economy. If Africa’s renewable energy transitions are to be socially and environmentally sustainable, we argue, the off grid solar industry must make new commitments to sustainable design and work to ensure the last mile distribution of replacement parts and sub-components as well as products. Many of the questions we raise here might also be asked of the cookstoves, smart energy meters, or solar-powered water pumps.

The World Bank/International Finance Corporation’s Lighting Global certification programme requires that companies seeking its approval for their products must provide a twelve-month consumer warranty [3]. However, these warranties, existing after-sales services in the off-grid solar industry do little to attend to the physical temporality and longevity of component parts, plastics and metals which materially outlast 12 months by orders of magnitude. Nor do they account for products being re-sold, given as gifts, travelling to different regions and countries, or being separated from the packaging where warranty information is often displayed.

Some off-grid solar businesses have sought to address concerns from their distributors and end-users, and remain competitive in an in

creasingly crowded market place, by offering even more extensive replacement and take-back schemes for their products. Such schemes bracket corporate responsibility by establishing a company’s commitment to replace or repair objects only where they have not been opened, within a fixed period of time from the moment of sale, and by placing the burden of responsibility for returning the item to the vendor on the consumer. As we explored in this paper, these interventions fail to acknowledge the range of activities that take place when products stop working or functioning, as people work to restore varying degrees of functionality through repair.

If the off grid solar industry is producing new flows of electronicwaste it is because waste is built into solar products by design. In our interviews, people working for GOGLA affiliated solar manufacturing companies frequently accuse non-affiliated, Chinese solar manufacturers of selling pico-solar products that are ‘made to break’, with short life product times the result of sub-standard components and manufacturing processes, intended to ensure frequent re-purchases. But “planned obsolescence” is not only a deliberate process, it can also be the unintended outcome of design decisions that determine how components are assembled and whether the components are available individually, in-market.

In our interviews and at industry gatherings the managers of Lighting Global certified companies describe the work of manufacturing as a struggle to balance costs or affordability against minimum product standards, and point to the 1 or 2 year warranties on their products as offering consumers’ protection against failure and breakdown. Yet by making consumer warranties a central component of product standards the Lighting Global quality assurance programme has also encouraged and promoted the black boxing of technology. For consumer warranties to be honoured, devices must be tamper proof; and tamper proof solar products are not easily repairable products. Some of the most high profile and successful off grid solar manufacturing companies may meet minimum Lighting Global product standards but their choice of battery, the location of batteries inside closed plastic casings, and the choice of screws and fittings has material consequences for anybody who seeks to keep something in use beyond its product warranty by maintaining or repairing it.

Understanding the off grid solar economy in Sub Saharan Africa necessitates attention to social behaviour – wants and needs, desires and aspirations – that shape how and why people acquire or adopt solar technologies, and what they do with them when they operate. Increasingly, it will also require attention to the practices and activities around solar technologies when they no longer operate as intended. Such insights are vital if we are to address emerging global electronic waste challenges and the possibility of just transitions to a low carbon future.

 

[1] N. Gregson, Living with Things: Ridding, Accommodation, Dwelling, first paperback edition, Sean Kingston Publishing, Wantage, 2011.

[2] Federico Magalini, Deepali Sinha-Khetriwal, David Rochat, Jaco Huismann, Seth Munyambu, Joseph Oliech, Innocent Chidiabsu, Oliver Mbera, Electronic waste (e-waste) impacts and mitigation options in the off-grid renewable energy sector, Evidence on Demand (2016), p.35.

[3] Lighting Global, Pico-PV Quality Standards (2017), p.1.

 

Excerpt of: Jamie Cross / Declan Murray, The afterlives of solar power: Waste and repair off the grid in Kenya, Energy Research & Social Science 44 (2018) 100–109, here p. 107-108.

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