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Solar waste headache as devices flood Kenyan market

 Solar waste dumped in an open field. [File, Standard]

The usage of solar products in Kenya has been on the rise.

Adopting solar for lighting and powering less energy-intensive appliances has come in handy for households and businesses in off-grid areas while enabling those connected to the national electricity grid to cut their power bills.

It has also enabled some industries to meet some of their green goals.

The growing consumption, however, presents a major challenge for the country --- what do the consumers do with the panels, appliances, batteries and other accessories once they reach their end of life?

Kenya is a major consumer of solar products, which might mean that in the coming years, it could be grappling with tonnes of waste from solar products.

Data from manufacturers of solar products shows that East Africa is a major market for these products, with Kenya leading the park in the region. East Africa accounts for more than half of the solar energy kits that the industry sells globally.

According to Gogla—the global association for the off-grid solar energy industry—out of the 4.3 million solar energy kits that its affiliates sold for the six months to June 2023, 2.2 million were sold in East Africa, which meant that the region accounted for about 52 per cent of the global market.

This is even as the agency said the sales of solar home systems have started to plateau as the market starts to saturate. 

Globally, there is a growing concern about the rising amount of waste generated by solar products that have reached the end of life.

Other than being an eyesore if not disposed of properly, solar equipment contains metals such as lead and cadmium, which at high levels are a danger to human health and the environment. 

“Hazardous waste testing on solar panels in the marketplace has indicated that different varieties of solar panels have different metals present in the semiconductor and solder. Some of these metals, like lead and cadmium, are harmful to human health and the environment at high levels. If these metals are present in high enough quantities in the solar panels, solar panel waste could be hazardous waste. Some solar panels are considered hazardous waste, and some are not, even within the same model and manufacturer,” said the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Epra, while acknowledging that there is growth in the use of solar, noted that the waste from solar products— particularly from large utility-scale power projects—has not been a challenge.

This is especially true considering that many of these plants are new and expected to run for the next two decades before decommissioning. 

Kenya, according to the energy industry regulator, has an installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity of 372 megawatts (MW), consisting of 212 MW of utility-scale and more than 160 MW of captive capacity.

“This installed capacity is expected to increase significantly in future. A majority of the existing solar PV plants were installed in the last 5 years. Solar PV systems primarily consist of solar modules and inverters. Solar modules have a useful life of 20 years while inverters have a useful life of 10 years,” said Epra.

“Waste from solar installations has in the past not been a significant challenge as most of the installed solar PV systems are still operational. However, it is expected that as these installations reach their end of life, this waste will pose a significant challenge.”

The energy industry regulator noted that there are enough mechanisms to handle solar waste that it expects to surge as the equipment used in the utility-scale power plants come to the end of life. 

“Yes, the country’s legal framework is adequate to ensure that waste from solar is handled safely. The Energy (Solar Photovoltaic Systems) Regulations 2012 requires that the disposal of the solar PV systems and components be in compliance with the provisions of the Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) No 8 of 1999,” said Epra. 

“Epra Works with the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) which is the lead agency responsible for Kenya’s Environment and implementation of the EMCA Act. Nema has developed the draft Environmental Management and Coordination (E-Waste Management) Regulations that act as a guideline for the disposal of e–waste including solar waste. The guidelines include obligations for producers and importers of electronic equipment and e-waste.”

Kendi Mirithu, founder and chief executive Alkay Consulting, which works with large power consumers in designing and implementing solar power projects, said a factor that could fuel solar waste is the cost-sensitive nature of Kenyans, whose hunting for a bargain has seen unscrupulous traders import substandard products.

She said due to the high initial capital investment when installing solar, the uptake in Kenya has not been very high, especially for large-scale projects.

“For you to install solar, you have to invest, unless you have the small home solutions,” she said, pointing out that people decry the initial cost of solar despite a panel having a warranty of 25 years.

“That does not mean that after 25 years the panel will be dead. Instead, it means, for 25 years you will not be paying for power,” said Ms Mirithu.

“There are a lot of substandard things that are cheap in the market; fake batteries and others have flooded the market, affecting the sales for legitimate goods.”

The effect of cheap and substandard solar equipment is that they cannot be recycled, there have been attempts to do so, although not successful. These end up in the landfills fast.

“For quality solar equipment, the benefit is guaranteed. People do not understand how they get their money back because people are not educated on how the system works,” she said, adding that lack of information is a challenge for local players in the solar space.

Away from the large-scale solar equipment that is projected to remain in service for years, many appliances last between three and four years.

Research shows that even those produced by reputable firms do not have warranties that go beyond two years, with most of them having warranties a year’s warranty.

There are also some that malfunction shortly after the customers bring them home, lasting a few weeks or months.

The firms that manufacture and distribute solar products for off-grid areas are perhaps more alive to the challenge of e-waste, especially as the uptake of these products increases.

This is not just the utility-scale solar power equipment but the appliances that range from solar lanterns, the outdoor lights and many small solar home systems that light a few bulbs and power one or two appliances such as charging a mobile phone.

“All in all, off-grid solar is a clean, affordable and reliable source of electricity. But what happens when off-grid solar products reach the end of their life span?” posed Gogla in a recent report. 

“Sections of the industry have been raising concerns with regards to the disposal of solar products, stating that if not managed properly, they represent environmental and health & safety risks for both consumers and people who might handle products at the end of life stage.”

Gogla added that managing e-waste in the off-grid solar sector has been on the agenda for a long time and that it is an area that should be dealt with by individual companies.

“At Gogla, we have been working with industry leaders for several years to address product quality and e-waste challenges and to support companies in their work to achieve sustainability and impact. For example, in Kenya, off-grid solar companies have driven an initiative to establish the country’s first Producer Responsibility Organisation for E-waste (E-PROK),” said the organisation.

“The Producer Responsibility Organisation has the mandate and capability to engage with off-grid solar companies to reduce the e-waste burden and engage informal recycling and repair sectors. It also goes much further, addressing e-waste from the telecoms industry, consumer electronics industry and more. It has laid the blueprint for similar action in other markets.”

Other areas that can reduce waste from solar products include having manufacturers bring quality products to the market that also come with warranties, according to Gogla.

Durable products, Gogla noted, would “immediately reduce the amount of e-waste that will be created (and extend the positive impacts of off-grid solar) through long product lifetimes and repair.”  

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