OFF-GRID SOLAR E-WASTE; RECIPE FOR E-WASTE MENACE

Date: 23 February 2018

Off-Grid Systems (OGS) buoyed by Pay-As-You-Go (PAYGO) business models is arguably the ideal and revolutionary innovation addressing the fundamental challenge of under-electrification in developing countries. The revolution is more pronounced in Sub Saharan Africa where approximately 57% of the population still lacks access to electricity (the world average is 14%). The Lighting Global 2017 report on Off-Grid Solar Market trends reports a high social-economic impact and high-growth of the OGS sector that has transformed lives of over 360 million people across the globe. The trends in household access to electricity predominantly across East Africa demonstrate a significant marginal contribution of the OGS on the track to realizing near-universal access by 2030. Additionally, the approximately 28.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions averted by adoption of OGS retaliates the significance of OGS in mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Off-Grid solar devices include the plugin solar home systems, Picocells, and component-based system. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimates a short lifespan for such devices averaging at three to five years. Despite their short lifespan, Lighting Global estimates a 25% growth in OGS by 2022. The growth will mainly be fueled by plug-in solar home systems that entail a battery and a solar panel component. The unreliability of the main grid and high population growth rates in regions with low electrification rates in some parts of Africa offers incremental growth opportunities and a transition from on-grid to off-grid implying a growing market of OGS systems. Moreover, the increase in the number of innovations focusing on off-grid electricity solutions such as Mkopa, Lumos Mobile Electricity, and Mobisol demonstrates the immense deployment of off-grid systems and expansive market in regions where there is under electrification.
Albeit developing countries witnessing a power revolution powered by OGS, the high penetration rates could potentially increase the toxic waste in form of lead, chromium, silicon tetrachloride and cadmium contained in OGS. Moreover, in developing countries particularly in Africa, e-waste management is mainly undertaken by the informal and unorganized sector who burn the electronics to recover the metallic components. The primitive recycling techniques release toxins from the metallic components which is an imminent health risk and environmental degradation. Additionally, large-scale OGS entails solar farms that are space intensive, which would result in pilling of more solid waste when the OGS products become obsolete. While the marginal quantity of OGS in the market may seem minimal now to cause a negative environmental impact, the burgeoning penetration of OGS steadily increases the flow to the already flooding e-waste stream due to limited waste management infrastructure in developing countries.
The potential OGS e-waste challenge calls for strong commitment in installing environmentally sound management interventions that promote product innovation and waste collection infrastructure. Adopting mechanisms that promote recyclability and reusability of OGS is core to the sustainability of the off-grid market and mitigation of their waste impact. Such mechanism would entail value chain specialization on the design of OGS products to address their reparability, reusability, and recyclability. Promoting awareness on the damages on both human lives and the environment by the OGS e-waste and implementing stringent policy on OGS e-waste management is another central intervention that is imperative. To attract more innovators on e-waste management such as Silicon Valley Toxics, Phenix Recycling, Mobisol, First Solar and Enviroserve, the governments ought to pursue practices that foster improvement of the business environment. Establishment of synergies in the e-waste management business to enhance OGS e-waste recycling capacity would promote the growth of local recycling value chain. Like Silicon Valley Toxics coalition proposes, engagement of research institute and universities is salient in developing superior technologies that will address the OGS e-waste potential environmental impact.
Although trends demonstrate OGS as a game-changer in electricity provision in developing countries, the e-waste from OGS could become insurmountable leaving a catastrophe in developing countries instead of fortunes of OGS technology. However, if truly effective solutions would be reached, OGS e-waste is a potential gold mine would create job opportunities and sustain the ecosystem simultaneously.