One of the world’s emerging environmental problems is what to do with the waste from the energy transition. While there’s no question that renewable energy is less destructive than fossil fuels, it is not environmentally benign. There are end-of-life wind turbines and solar panels to recycle, and the batteries from electric cars and other goods.
It’s important not to exaggerate these issues – I often see them used to dismiss cleaner technologies, and that only prolongs the extractivist status quo. Neither should they be glossed over in order to speed up the adoption of new tech, as that will only create problems later. What we need is greater attention on the solutions, because solutions there are.
With that in mind, I wanted to mention the work of Lumos, the biggest domestic solar company in Nigeria. Founded in 2013, their success is due to carefully constructed solar packages tailored to people’s needs. Because the up-front cost is considerable, they sell on a subscription basis and customers can pay through their mobile phone. Local energy supply can be patchy and not all their customers are connected anyway, so they provide a battery as standard. It comes in a neat yellow box and people can run their lights, televisions and other appliances into the evening, all off their solar.
It’s a model that really works, and it’s why the Nigerian government aims to see 5 million domestic solar units fitted in the coming years, as part of their goal to reach universal energy access.
Ultimately though, all of these units will create waste batteries further down the line. It’s worth laying the groundwork now and ensuring that the end of those batteries is planned in from the start. That’s what Lumos have done. In partnership with Hinckley, they have developed an e-waste recycling site to process and recycle their lithium batteries. It’s one of just two battery processing facilities on the continent, and it’s already taken delivery of 10,000 Lumos batteries that had been waiting in a warehouse.
Battery recycling is a vital part of a 21st century energy system – whether that’s being built for the first time in rural Africa, or as a transition from fossil fuels. Finding new uses for batteries, or dismantling them to re-use the lithium and other elements, will prevent an e-waste crisis later. Keeping materials in use, in a circular economy, will also reduce pressure on those places where lithium is extracted.
We’ll be hearing more about these sorts of developments, in Africa and around the world.
More on renewable energy in a circular economy:
This week I wrote about how the electric transport revolution has started from the bottom up in India and China, through ebikes, auto-rickshaws and buses. Those on lower incomes are the first to benefit from electric vehicles, and the numbers of EVs is growing rapidly. China had an estimated 250 million ebikes on the streets […]
No technology is environmentally benign. Everything has an embodied carbon cost, a materials footprint, and has to be disposed of in a responsible way. To claim a place in a circular economy, any prospective green technology has to minimise that embodied carbon and be fully recyclable or reusable at the end of its useful life. […]
Renewable energy is cleaner than fossil fuel energy. No fuel is burned. There are no emissions from producing the energy itself. But there are still emissions in creating and then disposing of the technology. This is a recurring theme in sceptical dismissals of renewable energy: look at this stack of retired solar panels/wind turbines/electric car […]