There has been a boom in the sale of small-scale off-grid solar (OGS) products across the Global South over the past decade. Although this boom has aided in extending electricity access to many energy-poor households and businesses, an emerging concern is the short (three to four years) working life that these off-grid solar products typically have. This has led to a growing issue of solar e-waste. Here we examine how the structure of the off-grid solar sector results in substantial barriers to addressing solar e-waste in the Global South.
In the shadow of the 200 million products (and associated appliances) sold since 2010, is a wave of waste that much of the Global South is poorly equipped to deal with due to the decentralized nature of OGS products. OGS products sold in the Global South contain various hazardous materials, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and sulfuric acid, which may cause serious adverse effects to humans and the environment.
We attend to four structural challenges in the OGS market that have direct implications for off-grid solar e-waste (SEW) in the Global South:
Affiliated versus unaffiliated competition. The competition between affiliated and unaffiliated solar products is a central dynamic of the OGS market and is a key driver of SEW in the Global South.
Black-boxed technologies. The black-boxing of technology is a common practice in the OGS industry, particularly among affiliated manufacturers. The limited repairability of affiliated products has direct implications for SEW, particularly as informal repair is widespread in the Global South.
Closed proprietary hardware ecosystem. The majority of affiliated OGS systems distinguish themselves by offering all-inclusive plug-and-play systems. However, these affiliated plug-and-play systems also have limited interoperability. This practice greatly limits consumer choice, results in wasteful duplication, and constrains the establishment of second-hand markets for solar goods, especially for solar appliances.
Distribution geographies. Given the intense price competition from unaffiliated companies and the costs of last-mile reach, affiliated solar firms are unlikely to have an appetite for collecting unaffiliated SEW unless considerable financial support or incentives are in place.
Voluntary industry-led initiatives to address SEW are unlikely to enact major structural change to waste issues. Subsequently, we have shown that a potential means for reducing SEW flows lies within local cultures of repair that already exist across the Global South.
Excerpt of: Towards a repair research agenda for off-grid solar e-waste in the Global South (Springer Nature, 2022)