Will solar PV create a wave of toxic battery waste in rural Africa?

13 December 2016

Promoting solar photovoltaic (PV) off-grid solutions for poor rural areas without access to electricity is a good thing. The benefits of lighting and electricity for education and health, and clean energy as an enabler for income-generating activities cannot be emphasised enough. Therefore, the Sustainable Development Goal 7 ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’ promotes renewables such as solar PV and mini grids as one of the quickest ways to scale up rural electrification rates in developing countries and to end energy poverty.

Image of indoor storage/office space of used lead-acid battery traders

When people talk about off-grid solar PV, they often only talk about solar panels, but forget that for solar to work in off-grid areas one also needs storage technologies - batteries. Also, what is so far not considered in the roll-out of solar PV panels and batteries, are the end-of-life issues associated with the technologies. At this stage, and for decades to come, millions of lead-acid batteries are likely to be used as the main storage technology in rural off-grid areas – in the absence of environmentally sound recycling facilities.

In Africa, many countries and communities are already struggling with contaminated sites and soil pollution from unregulated car battery recovery and recycling. Unsound end-of-life management and recycling can cause severe and even fatal lead poisoning of people working in the battery recycling sector. The health of people living around small and industrial-scale lead smelters, in particular children, are severely impacted for life. A recent report by the Lead Recycling Africa Project and Oeko-Institute revealed that already every year more than 1.2 million tonnes of used lead-acid batteries and 800,000 tonnes of lead require sound management in Africa.

Some organisations are beginning to understand the looming challenges associated with the energy transition in rural Africa and are exploring solutions to the emerging problems. On regional level the United Nations Environment Assembly meeting held in May 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya, focused on health and environmental hazards caused by the recovery of lead from waste batteries. On 24 November 2016, I attended a multi-stakeholder workshop in Abuja, Nigeria, organised by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, bringing together researchers, regulators, NOGs, solar PV companies and battery industry representatives to discuss the issues at stake.

The solar off-grid battery recycling challenge in Africa

In Nigeria about 60 per cent of the population still have no access to modern energy services. To address the issue, Nigeria aims to install 30,000 megawatts of solar PV by 2030 as outlined in the country’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Most of this solar target will be installed off-grid. Other African countries have similar targets - the African Renewable Energy Initiative that was launched in 2015 has a 300 gigawatt target for 2030, solar PV will play a major role. Ghana aims to deploy around 30,000 solar home systems and two million solar lanterns by 2020 and invest $230 million into four solar energy project areas, including mini-grids and stand-alone solar PV systems.

For Nigeria’s off-grid solar PV installations, the panels and most batteries are currently imported from China (about 70-80 per cent). While European products are too expensive, other suppliers are South Korea and the US, and only about 10 per cent of lead-acid batteries are produced domestically. As the battery costs are about 60 per cent of the installation cost for an off-grid PV installation, Chinese imports are currently the best option for low and middle income countries. Already about two million are imported every year as energy storage devices (also for conventional diesel generators), a number that is expected to rise steeply.

The amount of lead-acid batteries that will be needed for storage is staggering. Currently, for every 6 kilowatts of installed solar PV about 8 units of batteries (400 Amp, 48 V) are needed. A back-of-the envelope calculation shows that in Nigeria for 30,000 megawatts (MW) about 40 million batteries will need to be installed initially. The typical lifetime of a battery is only about three years, compared to 20-25 years average lifespan of the PV panels. For 30,000 MW solar PV capacity this would mean over the lifetime about 280 million batteries will have to be installed, replaced, recovered and then recycled. Most of the batteries can be expected to be lead acid batteries as lithium-ion batteries are slow to enter the off-grid market in developing countries.

Battery lead recycling – a global value chain

Lead recycling is big business with global dimensions. Lead-acid batteries are one of the most recycled consumer products in the world. In 2013 the worldwide production of recycled lead was 6.7 million tons, more than half of total global lead production. In West Africa, Nigeria serves as a regional hub for used lead-acid batteries which are being transported into Nigeria from other countries such as Cameroon and Niger, together with other types of scrap and e-waste. Annually about 50,000 tonnes of lead are recovered from these batteries in Nigeria, mostly under conditions which are hazardous to human health and the environment. Once the used lead-acid batteries are broken open, acids are drained into the soil and the lead plates are removed, the largest share of lead (around 70 per cent), it is being shipped to China and India, the main destinations for recovered lead from Nigeria. Here further recycling, smelting and manufacturing of new batteries takes place.

Image of a stockpile of used lead-acid batteries in Nigeria

Currently, the price paid by foreign buyers is much higher than what domestic battery recyclers and manufacturers can pay. As Nigeria’s economic crisis worsens and lead prices on the international market are increasing, the transboundary movements of used lead acid batteries are likely to increase. The growing international demand for recycled lead and the weak exchange rate of the Nigerian Naira makes exporting lead far more profitable than domestic recycling: Nigeria’s only facility of the Ibeto Group, operating with environmentally-sound lead battery recycling practices, only runs at 10 per cent of its capacity.

What are the solutions?

It is clear that current practices and recycling methods are not sufficient to deal with the emerging challenge effectively. In the first place, policies and regulations on international and national level are needed to establish certified collection and recycling centres operating with environmentally sounds practices and adhering to health and safety standards to protect workers.

Finding effective solutions is hampered by large data gaps. What is needed are detailed inventories of the amount of battery waste generated, recycling sites, domestic and international waste flows. So far there is very little understanding on domestic and international lead trade networks.

To manage the recycling challenge of lead acid batteries from solar PV, the solar industry stakeholders including manufacturers, developers and distributors will need to come together to set up take-back schemes, collection and recycling systems. Extended producer responsibility is one of the key concepts that need to be applied in practice.

International development actors involved in the diffusion of solar PV solutions need to include end-of-life battery disposal into their programming and develop appropriate solutions – roll-out and take-back schemes need to be implemented hand-in-hand, otherwise the solar industry could lose its green credentials. One of the stakeholders beginning to include circular economy thinking into their business model is Mobisol, who has already supplied more than 65,000 solar home systems in Africa. Mobisol has started to develop responsible recycling solutions for hazardous waste including PV panels and batteries.

Time for action is now, it is still possible to avoid solar PV battery waste becoming a new toxic wave.

Images: 'Indoor storage/office space of used lead-acid battery traders' and 'Stockpile of used lead acid batteries in Anambra State, Nigeria'
Images credit: Recycling and Economic Development Initiative Nigeria 

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