Does off-grid solar energy really only have positive impacts?
At first glance, the answer is clear: in off-grid areas of developing countries, kerosene lamps are generally used for "lighting". They hardly produce light, but very much harmful smoke. Also the combustion of fossil fuels is used, producing substantial CO2.
Therefore and not without reason, the simple message of off-grid NGOs and companies is: solar energy brings sufficient and clean light, and thus helps to reduce both the health damage of eyes and lungs as well as to reduce the burden of CO2 on the environment. In addition, many social impacts are achieved. A seemingly simple and "good" solution for the replacement of the "bad" kerosene lamps.
But is that really true? Some aspects that can easily tarnish the positive image:
The praise on the major environmental impacts from solar products should not be sung so loud - at least not as long as the off-grid industry can show a viable and reliable approach to recycling and disposal. After all, millions of batteries are scattered today in rural regions. The fact that these are rechargeable and therefore their end of life will be reached only after a few years, only defers the problem to the future - in the hope that today no one will bring the subject up. The "devil-may-care” principle.
In fact, today only a few manufacturers, NGOs or distributors are able to provide a solution for the battery disposal. As long as this does not happen, we will ultimately replace one devil (kerosene) by another (battery waste).
And what about the disposal of plastic waste (housing)? Some solar lamps even have batteries that are not replaceable. It is highly likely that in this case both the housing and the battery will simply be thrown away. A time bomb of environmentally hazardous waste is being created.
What can be done? Two of many possible approaches:
- In tenders, besides the price, the question whether a disposal concept can be offered by the distributor and / or manufacturer should also play a role.
- Organizations and other opinion leaders (World Bank) have to quickly put the issue on the agenda for the development of appropriate standards and rules.
Environmental standards in the production
If you offer an environmentally friendly product, it must actually have consequences on the production. It usually takes place today in China and India. Which are here the environmental conditions of the suppliers of our solar lamp producers? What environmental impacts are actually produced during the production in a factory somewhere in the interior of China? And: do we really want to know this at all?
But we should be careful: with the increasing success of off-grid products, also critics will be called upon and will strike this sensitive nerve. The damage to the industry’s image could be considerable.
What can we do? For example, the introduction of an eco-label would be possible for off-grid products. Not only should the materials used for the product be evaluated, but also their production and disposal possibility.
The light from a solar lamp is indeed smoke-free - but is it also really bright so that eye injuries may be prevented? After all, the eye and the eyesight will be also damaged by working or reading with insufficient light. It is not without reason that there are in Europe numerous regulations on adequate lighting for different workplaces and activities. For developing countries, these rules do not apply. And often the solar lamps you will find today have a brightness of only 20-25 lumens, which is clearly not enough for reading. Is it sufficient to say that after all the even worse kerosene light has been replaced by an equally inadequate, but smoke-free solar light?
What to do? We finally need quality standards to ensure that, even in off-grid regions, for a specific activity a specific light will be supplied to prevent health problems. The current quality standards, such as those from Lighting Africa, don’t refer this at all.
Socially acceptable production
The textile industry has a bad image, since the inadequate production conditions were progressively known, at present especially in Bangladesh. But how do the production facilities of the suppliers of off-grid solar products actually look like? What is the use to publicly measure a social impact in Africa if this was achieved through child labour and poor working conditions in the production?
Here, too, a quality label, which includes social standards in the production, would be useful.
Losers of the off-grid technology
Any positive development brings with it losers. This is also the case with the replacement of kerosene lamps by solar energy. For, quite a few people live today from the sale of kerosene. It won’t so easily cost the job of the retailer in the capital, but what about the person who sells the kerosene at the marketplace in a rural village, and thus generates a modest living? This person will be unemployed in the future if the village is supplied with solar energy. Undoubtedly a negative social impact.
What to do? If in off-grid projects great importance is attached to sustainability (and rightly), it must however be thought more comprehensively than it usually is today. Again, it is important not to solve a social problem, by creating a new one. In the case of the kerosene seller, the project would have to consider whether and how he can be incorporated into the new energy supply.
The examples cited here do not gather comprehensively the problem of negative social, environmental and health impacts and can’t offer a ready-made solution. But we have to accept that social, health and environmental impacts clearly require an additional evaluation perspective to the today's standpoint. A clean technology such as solar energy should also bring a clean production and implementation about. Only then, we can in good conscience talk of a clean, environmentally and socially sustainable energy supply.
Dr. Harald Schützeichel is CEO from SunTransfer and Director of the Stiftung Solarenergie - Solar Energy Foundation.
Send your comments here
Comment by Jacinta Murunga on December 10, 2013
This is indeed a mind opening article. Job displacement in any part of the world translates into meagre income and the inability to meet the day to day needs. This is not in line with our MDGs aimed to alleviate poverty and improve livelihoods. Kerosene vendors can be turned into entrepreneurs of solar products. This calls for intense and strategic awareness creation. Evaluation in standards at production etc. starts at the national level. Countries should set strict regulations governing production, importation and environment protection champions need to work at lightning speed to address the recycling and disposal menace.
Comment by Rolland Zhang on November 21, 2013
There are Millions of dead Lead acid battery which abandon in the thailand, now too many supply and custmoer choose lead acid by lower price, but after 1 years, the battery abandon and will hurt people healthy by heavy metal.
Comment by Steve Andrews on November 15, 2013
SolarAid is about to undertake some research in the Bomet region of Kenya where our business, SunnyMoney, has sold tens of thousands of lights and we've heard stories of kerosene sellers closing shop. We will report through Luminet when we've done that. Research already done tells us that an average customer buying just a study light stops using kerosene and saves $70 per year. They invest their savings in better food, more schooling and their businesses... The result of which is likely to be a lot more job creation than those kerosene sellers put out of business. But let's see.
Comment by Evan Mills on November 12, 2013
We indeed need to address any potential job displacement.
Do you have any concrete information/data on the numbers of people who gain their livelihood selling kerosene? Particularly important are those who sell kerosene exclusively, as distinct from one of many products, e.g., in an informal market.