The African junkyard


Mike Rycroft

A recent tweet that drew attention to the fact that the problem of recycling old solar panels had been solved led me to delve into the subject of recycling renewable energy bits and pieces when they reach of life. The process is well established and there is no real problem as to how to handle scrap solar, but there is a growing problem with volumes. The process of recycling is labour intensive, as the module components are sealed together and must virtually be broken apart before further processing into re-useable material. Japan, for instance,  expects the volume to rise to a peak of 800 000 t annually in the period 2030-2040.

A bit of internet surfing reveals that there is a market for scrapped solar panels that still work, where second hand solar panels can be purchased individually or in bulk lots, and I am sure that there are plenty of buyers willing to take the chance, which is probably the same as buying a 20 year old car. The logic behind this is that panels which have reached the limit of 80% of their initial performance could still have several years of life in them.

I was rather incensed at a  suggestion made in one of the articles that decommissioned PV panels that had reached the end of their economic life could be sold cheaply to Africa, which would welcome this largesse with open arms. “Panels working at 50% efficiency can still be used to power a few appliances” was the claim.

This overlooks the fact that these panels would eventually fail completely and have to be recycled anyway.  Africa of course, has few recycling facilities and disposal laws for decommissioned PV plant so it is simply a case of moving electronic waste out of the country of origin, and dumping into Africa, which seems to be seen as a bottomless pit able to absorb all the scrap and obsolete technologies from the rest of the world.

This is representative of a rather patrician attitude towards Africa, that someone else has the right to make Africa’s decisions for us. Africa seems to be the dumping ground not only for obsolete technologies, but the sponge to absorb surplus production of older technologies as well as a convenient testing ground for technology avoided by the rest of the world.

This patrician view is supported by recent reports that the EU refused to support a program to advance mechanised farming in Africa, and also predictably rejected a program to promote the use of GMOs in Africa, the idea being that African agriculture should be based on the pastoral model. Who gives them the right to take such a decision? Both of these programs would increase food production and increase the living standard for many Africans.

We have a history of getting saddled with failed technologies from first world countries. I can think of the telephone switching system which never worked properly in its country of origin, and was imported together with all the tooling for local manufacture, and had to be modified, by local engineers, to get it to work properly. There are other instance of obsolete technology being dumped on us because we are Africa, the dark continent, and should make do with second best or all the junk discarded by the rest of the world. The huge shortage of electricity in Africa seems to have created the attitude that this provides a field day for everybody’s ideas to be tried out, and a huge opportunity for any type of system to be deployed.

One could almost sympathise with calls for decolonisation and Africanisation of science and technology, if we are constantly being held back by the rest of the world, and being fed with goods and ideas that accord with this view of Africa as a second rate continent. SA was and still is a ground breaker in many energy fields, including nuclear, where there are two pebble bed reactor systems going into the licencing phase, and we do not need to accept the visions of other people who will not ultimately have to live with the reality created by their ideas.

Making decisions for Africa seems to be the prerogative of every non-African country, especially in the energy field, where we are currently bombarded with attempts to push the energy program in favour of this technology or the other. Part this comes from countries providing assistance in the energy development processes. We have in the past few years seen teams from Germany, Denmark and a host of other countries assisting with a variety of different programmes. One could be cynical and suggest that results of these efforts have a bias towards the products manufactured in the countries concerned and are aimed at boosting a flagging local market, and extending the lifetime of older technologies.

In addition we are flooded by advice from international companies. Recently the head of an international manufacturer claimed that the ideal solution for this country would be to base the power fleet on gas. And we are all familiar with the pressure from the nuclear industry, as well as other technology providers, all claiming that their system is ideal for our situation.

On top of this we have the environmental groups, with claim that South Africa should implement their vision of 100% renewable  energy and reject all other forms. Because Africa represents a green field energy situation, is there any reason why it should become the testing ground for ideologically based programs?  It is interesting that most of the proponents do not and will not in future live in Africa.

The only technology not being promoted is the indigenous one, i.e. coal and in this area we are being attacked from within, as our own environmental policy is based on decisions taken and tragets set by a UN group. It is refreshing to see that the president of the US intends removing that country from their agreements  and doing things their own way. One wonders what would happen to our policy on CO2 emissions if the targets set in the agreement were to change substantially? Would we go our own way or still cling blindly to what we are told is right. SA is responsible for 4% of the global CO2 emissions and yet we are trying to emulate Europe? When other countries are building more and more coal fired stations we, who have a massive resource are moving away from coal. What will we ultimately achieve on a global scale by accepting an idea dumped on us by first world organisations?

Maybe we should heed the call of the Minister of Public Enterprises at a recent conference, that the South African energy sector needs to “leverage the latest technologies” and to “ facilitate transfer of skills”  to enable local manufacture. To advance we need the latest appropriate technology for the African continent that would enable us to exploit our resources to the maximum, and should reject any attempt to palm off obsolete systems and untried ideas and concepts on us. We are not the world’s junkyard.

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