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Blog Post 8 January 2021

A pathway to green recovery: repair, reuse and refurbish solar systems

Without solar energy, many unelectrified (off-grid) parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are unable to generate light and power for working, studying and cooking. Access to affordable, reliable and safe solar systems improves the lives of individuals, but what happens when these break down and vital appliances stop working?

Currently, manufacturers of electronic equipment are not required to provide information about repairability for these products, which means repairs can be difficult and expensive to carry out.

Last year, the French Government launched a scheme that will ensure manufacturers of electronic equipment across the EU provide a repairability rating. This will better prepare the customer for when the product breaks down and will promote a repair, reuse and refurbish mentality.

Arguably, repairability is more important in rural, remote and off-grid settings – where access to parts and technicians are often in short supply. Efficiency for Access and the University of Edinburgh’s recent report, ‘Pathways to Repair in the Global Off-Grid Solar Sector’, suggests that a similar repairability scheme could be introduced by the off-grid solar industry. This, in turn, could contribute to a greener Covid-19 recovery across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Building resilience

Industries across the world are realising the value of resilience in the face of unexpected challenges, such as Covid-19. The pandemic has highlighted the potential for a greener recovery across the board, not least in the off-grid solar industry.

In 2020, the supply chains for replacement solar products and components were heavily disrupted. A survey by SE4ALL of over 80 off-grid solar manufacturers found widespread reports of constraints in the provision of spare parts and components due to shipping and transportation blockages. National lockdowns and social distancing measures have led solar companies to reconsider how they provide support to customers after sale.

UK charity SolarAid has called for action on repair as the new priority. Increased repairability and remote support works to counter disruptions by empowering product users and local businesses to maintain appliances during supply chain breakdowns. Embracing the right to repair will make strides towards a circular economy and help bring skills, jobs and revenue to communities in off-grid and remote areas.

Where to begin?

Repair, reuse and refurbishment of electronic products is already a common feature in off-grid energy markets, but what are the benefits?

Improving repairability extends the lifecycle of the product, resulting in less electronic waste, reduced material use and lower transportation costs, thus making it a cheaper and more environmentally friendly option. Local entrepreneurs can also build skills to grow their businesses, generating employment and economic growth.

Why not just build products that can be more easily repaired?

The new European standard for the assessment of repairability, reusability and upgradeability, has introduced steps for increasing the sustainability of electronic and electrical products. This presents the off-grid solar sector with an opportunity to draw inspiration from and lead in improving repairability.

Many manufacturers are already embracing repair, while adopting or adapting supportive business models depending on their individual circumstances and products. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, nor does increased repairability mean a reduction in payment security or user safety.

There are widespread challenges to improving repairability in off-grid markets, but there are short-term pathways that would demonstrate the off-grid solar industry’s commitment to the right to repair.

First and foremost, creating standardisation and certification schemes will ensure manufacturers innovate more easily repairable products. This, along with enhanced reporting, will improve the wider understanding of repairability. With readily available information, access to these innovative technologies can be expanded to rural and off-grid settings.

Repair should be a fundamental feature for off-grid appliances – more so than for the conventional appliance market. Innovators such as Lorentz, Mango Solar and Innovex are already proving the business case. Following suit will help build better energy access and more resilient local economies.

To learn more, read Efficiency for Access and the University of Edinburgh’s new working paper ‘Pathways to Repair in the Global Off-Grid Solar Sector’.

This blog has been adapted from the original, authored by Rowan Spear and Jamie Cross, University of Edinburgh, Jeremy Tait, Tait Consulting, and Richa Goyal, Energy Saving Trust, co-Secretariat, Efficiency for Access Coalition.