Is This the Time for the Off-Grid Solar Industry to Embrace the Right to Repair?

Access to affordable, reliable and safe solar power offers much to improve a person’s or family’s quality of life. But, like any electrical technology, off-grid solar products have an end of life

By Rowan Spear, University of Edinburgh, Jamie Cross, University of Edinburgh, Jeremy Tait, Tait Consulting, and Richa Goyal, Energy Saving Trust, co-Secretariat, Efficiency for Access Coalition

Across unelectrified parts of sub-Saharan Africa, off-grid solar energy systems are used to illuminate anything from a cooking area or worktop to a small home or shop, and, to power mobile phones, radios, televisions and fridges.

Access to affordable, reliable and safe solar power offers much to improve a person’s or family’s quality of life. But, like any electrical technology, off-grid solar products have an end of life.

From 2021 the French Government will make the manufacturers of electronic equipment — from lamps and refrigerators to televisions and irons — give their products a new repairability rating. The new rating will provide consumers with important information about how easy it will be to fix products if they break down.

A similar scheme could be introduced by the off-grid solar industry and in so doing, show leadership in driving a COVID-19 green recovery across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

This is one of the conclusions of a new working paper ‘Pathways to Repair in the Global Off-Grid Solar Sector’ produced by Efficiency for Access and the University of Edinburgh.

Written for manufacturers, distributors, energy access policy makers and researchers, the working paper examines the applicability of new Europe-wide standards for the off-grid solar sector and the benefits of enhancing the repairability of off-grid appliances.

Repair is even more important for COVID-19 recovery

COVID-19 has disrupted the supply chains for replacement solar products and components. Earlier this year, a survey of over eighty off-grid solar manufacturers by SE4ALL found widespread reports of constraints in the provision of spare parts and components as a result of blockages on shipping and transportation. Meanwhile, national lockdowns and social distancing measures introduced to prevent the community transmission of Covid-19 have forced many solar companies to reconsider how they provide after-sales services to their customers.

Market analysts argue that manufacturers of last-mile consumer goods need to adapt if they are to survive the COVID-19 crisis and the UK charity SolarAid has called for action on repair as a new priority.

Increased repairability works to counter this disruption by empowering product users and local businesses to maintain appliances during supply-chain breakdowns.

This is an opportunity for the off-grid solar industry to embrace the right to repair and make strides towards a circular economy that also brings skills, jobs and revenue to local communities in off-grid and remote areas.

Making repair more widespread

Repair, re-use and refurbishment of electronic products is already a common feature of everyday life and economic activity in off-grid energy markets. Repair generates local employment for entrepreneurs, builds skills and helps community cohesion. So why not build products that can be more easily repaired?

Repairability is a manageable and realistic mechanism for product lifetime extension. Quantifiable assessments, like the new European standard for the assessment of repairability, reusability and upgradeability, have introduced new steps for increasing the sustainability of electronic and electrical products and present the off-grid solar sector with an opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

Increasing the repairability of electronic products in the off-grid solar industry has many social, economic and environmental benefits. As well as bringing local jobs, repair can help conserve embodied energy, materials, and water and facilitate the reuse of components. It can also help enhance the use of scarce materials, reduce the transportation costs required to put products back into use, minimise the loss of materials and energy represented by the production of waste, and generate employment.

Many manufacturers are already embracing repair; adopting or adapting supportive businesses 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: different strategies can be combined and engaged to retain value and close resource loops for all types of off-grid appliances.

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

  • Developing standards and certification schemes: A repairability assessment method could be developed for priority off-grid appliances using the European standard as a template.
  • Procurement Strategies: Repair could be integrated into the procurement protocols for large, institutional customers (including governments, charities, and international agencies) as a means of supporting more sustainable, post-COVID economies.
  • Reporting the impacts of repair and repairability: Making the benefits of repair visible alongside other metrics for social, economic and environmental impact will help to help to reward companies that are developing repairable products and business, incentivise their competitors, and provide investors with appropriate measures of success.
  • Designing repairable products: Product manufacturers and designers can prioritise repair, by making common failure points accessible, making products easy to disassemble and providing information to customers.

Repair makes sense as a fundamental feature of off-grid appliance business models — even more so than it does for conventional appliance markets. Innovators such as LorentzMango Solar and Innovex are[SH1] already proving the business case. Both the motivators and the means to implement a repair economy are at hand, and this will help build better energy access and more resilient local economies.

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