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.
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.
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.