Battery waste from small off-grid solar projects in Africa putting lives at risk, scientists warn – E&T Magazine

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Researchers from the University of Manchester have found that improper waste management practices for off-grid solar technologies in Malawi are releasing life-threatening levels of lead pollution.

Getting energy from solar panels makes sense in areas of the world that receive sunshine most days of the year, such as Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Solar is often deemed to be a clean energy source for remote areas in countries that have no immediate connection to the national electricity grid. Such off-grid solar technologies are seen as crucial for expanding electricity access to hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, global energy companies are subsidising the installation of solar technology in these countries.  

However, researchers at the University of Manchester have uncovered a dark side to this emissions-free form of generating electricity – that of improper waste management practices that could potentially be life-threatening. 

Household-scale off-grid solar energy systems, which are commonly installed on the roof of someone’s home, mostly depend on lead-acid batteries as the most affordable and established energy storage technology. 

But the research team uncovered that common informal recycling activities for these batteries release 3.5-4.7 kg of lead pollution from a typical single battery. This is equivalent to more than 100 times the lethal oral dose of lead for an adult.

Dr Christopher Kinally, lead researcher, said: “The private market for off-grid solar products is a very effective way to increase access to electricity, which is crucial for sustainable development. However, the resulting toxic waste flow is growing rapidly across regions that do not have the infrastructure to safely manage electronic waste.

“Without developing infrastructure, legislation and education around these technologies, there are severe public health risks. Significant social, economic and legislative interventions are required for these solar products to be considered as a safe, low-carbon technology in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Kinally recorded that within suburban communities in Malawi, lead-acid batteries from solar energy systems are being refurbished openly on busy market streets by self-taught technicians, who are not aware of the toxicity of the materials they are handling.

He found that batteries are broken open with machetes, lead is melted over charcoal cooking stoves, and improvised lead battery cells are made by hand. In the process, approximately half of the lead content from each battery is leaked into the surrounding environment, releasing the equivalent of more than 100 lethal oral lead doses from a single battery into densely populated communities. 

Following the results of this study, the research team are urging governments to intervene immediately to address the enormous public health and environmental risks the absence of formal waste management infrastructure presents.

It has provided policy recommendations for waste management solutions, including changes to how solar energy companies receive investments from the UK and Global North.

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