Solar school bags, solar energy-producing tiles on school rooftops, solar carports and even off-grid solar energy systems that have been feeding the national grid have placed Kenya on the world map, but behind the sheen, the country stares at an entirely new category of electronic waste — solar e-waste.
Kenya has witnessed exponential growth in the adoption of solar as a viable energy source. In fact, the country is one of the biggest markets for solar home systems in Africa, buoyed by the government’s VAT exemption on all solar photovoltaic (PV) equipment, cutting the cost by 16 per cent.
Moreover, the government’s ambitious target to achieve 100 percent green energy by 2020 and achieve universal access to electricity by 2022 could see the solar industry make a giant leap.
Already, there are about 750,000 existing Solar Home Systems and the potential for 1.96 million more connections, the Kenya National Electrification Strategy says.
Since 2009, when Kenya was selected as one of the countries participating in the World Bank’s lighting Africa programme, it has emerged as a regional front-runner on the reach of the off-grid solar market, having bought 2.7 million solar lanterns.
The systems, popular in sparsely populated areas that are not near the national grid, typically consist of a 10—50-watt peak PV module and a battery.
Other Solar PV applications include water pumping, telecommunications and cathodic protection for pipelines. But the government is also heavily investing in deploying solar mini-grids, and has launched several projects across the country, including Samburu (40MW), Kopere-Kisumu (22,7MW), Witu (40MW), Garissa (55MW), Isiolo (40MW), and Nakuru (25MW), with the grander target of producing 600MW from solar by 2030.
We have entrepreneurial solar power plants like Garissa (54.6MW); Talek-Narok (50kW), a solar-hybrid generation power plant, combining PV modules, battery packs and a diesel generator; Gaitheri Secondary School’s (0.3MW) roofing tiles made of solar panels; privately operated Strathmore University’s 0.01MW solar-hybrid system; Garden City mall’s (0.858MW) solar carport system; and Tatu City’s 1MW rooftop PV.
Rural Electrification and Renewable Energy Corporation chairman Simon Gicheru recently announced plans to set up 147 small solar plants in the off-grid towns of Mandera, Garissa, Turkana, Wajir, Lamu and Tana River as solar is viewed as the most viable alternative of powering off-grid areas because connecting off-grid towns by stretching the national grid would take longer and gulp enormous resources.
But even as solar is glamorised as playing a life-changing role in enabling access to clean energy, Kenya is likely faced with an ever-growing problem of solar e-waste, as all these systems age.
Some components of the solar modules end their life cycle within two to three years while others have a lifespan of at least 20 years.
And environmentalists are now warning about the industry’s green credibility being tainted by poor management of its waste.
“We know that using solar power generally reduces the negative environmental impacts associated with combustion of fossil fuel,” notes University of Nairobi lecturer Parita Suresh Shah, who teaches in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.
“There is the primary environmental concern arising from the disposal of solar modules including batteries, motherboards that contain certain heavy metals and other hazardous waste.”
Solar batteries required to store electricity produced by solar panels so the power can be used at night and on cloudy days contain lead acid, which makes them difficult to recycle and a threat to the environment if they are disposed of inappropriately.
“It is an extremely eco-friendly solution, but this too could be a potential problem causer for the environment that must be addressed by all stakeholders, from manufacturers to traders and users, before the problem gets out of hand,” says Dr Ayub Macharia, the director of environmental education and awareness initiatives at the Ministry of Environment.
In recent years, the electronics industry has gained notoriety for creating an endless stream of disposable products that make their way to dumpsites, where they are eventually burnt in open air, spilling contaminants into water bodies and the air.
Solar modules contain some potentially dangerous materials found in other electronic equipment and devices, including silicon tetrachloride, cadmium, selenium and sulphur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas. Waste from solar system components ranges from lead acid and lithium-based batteries to copper cabling, silicon and rare or precious metals such as silver, tellurium and indium in solar panels.
According to Dr Declan Murray, an expert on solar e-waste management, who has been working on solar e-waste in Kenya for the last five years, "statistics are scarce" on current and future volumes of solar e-waste.
But before a significant number of dead panels start to pile up, a programme on managing waste should be developed and implemented to ensure they are disposed of properly to protect human, animal and environmental health by avoiding contamination of ground and water supplies.”
He adds: “Kenya is much better prepared than many countries as it has the draft legislation in place and has lots and lots of solar companies based in the country keen to handle their waste responsibly. The key now is to turn this commitment into actual action.”
Kenya has no law regulating such waste, and the Ministry of Environment is only now updating the e-waste management legislation first developed in 2013 but yet to be passed by Parliament and signed into law.
Under the law, the government will impose what is called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and recycling in an attempt to address pitfalls that could arise.
“By the end of the year, the government will move to impose the EPR on manufacturers and importers that will aid the take-back schemes for solar products that are no longer in use to promote recovery, reuse and recycling,” Dr Macharia said.
If it does come into force and is properly enforced, this law will compel manufactures, importers and dealers to keep inventories and monitor solar e-waste, create collection mechanisms such as take-back schemes and collection centres, so that the materials do not end up in the general waste management systems.
The recycling of solar panels, Dr Murray said, faces a big challenge the world over as there are no recycling plants yet.
As it is, most Kenyan solar users throw their waste in latrines, bury it or burn it or keep the products once they stop functioning, methods that are dangerous for the environment and human health.
“Some of the waste from companies is sitting in warehouses in Industrial Area and along Mombasa Road, some is passed on to reputable waste management companies such as WEEE Centre in Embakasi and Enviroserve in Athi River, from where parts move to Dubai and Belgium, depending on what material it is. Other waste still is sent back to China to feed into future product design processes,” he explains.
Some notable efforts on other e-waste recycling in the absence of e-waste regulations include those by Safaricom, WEEE Centre, Sinomet Kenya Ltd, Sindmud and the Communication Authority of Kenya. The organisations are expected to collect and store the items based on international security standards.
In a pre-processing plan, the received items will be carefully dismantled and sorted into components such as plastic, aluminium, and lead-acid batteries. All items will be directed to licensed and professional recyclers, either nationally or internationally.
Recycling is particularly important because the materials used to make the panels are rare precious metals such as silver, tellurium or indium.
Due to lack of recycling facilities, the panels and content recoverable metals may be going to waste and this can contribute to resource scarcity in future.
Plastics and metals, Dr Murray says, can be reasonably recycled in Kenya. The challenge is circuit boards, batteries and panels.
For now, these need to be sent abroad to facilities in Dubai and Belgium, as there are not many lithium or solar panel recycling facilities globally.
“To avoid further harm, for damage has definitely already been done, Kenya can pass the e-waste legislation through Parliament as soon as possible, support existing e-waste management companies and ensure companies collect used and faulty products at the end of life rather than leaving the onus and responsibility on users.”