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Solar lamps have been envisioned as a groundbreaking innovation for regions with no electricity. But what happens when solar gadgets break down? We travel to Scotland to interview Jamie Cross, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, whose team has developed Solar What?, a modular and repairable solar lamp.
In this episode, you will also hear from participants at our Restart Parties, sharing their thoughts on solar products and on the importance of repairability when buying goods.
Promising solar without repairability
Jamie tells us the story of the first testing of a solar lamp in a small village in Northern India. This technology, which was replacing the former kerosene lamps, was initially welcomed and people used the solar lamps at home for working or studying. However, after around five years, Jamie witnessed how these products weren’t working anymore: batteries reached their end of life, switches got stuck or broken… and the lamps were very hard to fix!
When solar lamps break, some people might try to fix these lamps themselves, or try to get help locally. People employ local problem solving, or jugaad in Hindi. However, if further help is needed, things get complicated when living in rural areas. We talk about issues of having to travel long distances for someone to check your device, and probably come back at least a second time if the product requires spare parts.
Solar What? Designing for longer lifetimes
Solar What? is a small solar-powered lamp that has been designed explicitly so it could be taken apart, repaired and kept in use for as long as possible. Rowan Spear, the team’s lead designer, joined us too for part of the interview to share insights from their recent testing of Solar What? in Zambia.
Jamie’s team have also developed an off-grid Solar scorecard, which ranks solar products in terms of their repairability, recyclability or access to spare parts. We can’t help but think of our Solar ‘Hall of Shame’ comprised of unfixable products encountered at our Restart Parties.
Designing solar products for repairability can extend their lifetimes and therefore also reduce the solar waste stream. According to Jamie, current estimates suggest that the electronic waste from the off-grid solar industry is equivalent to electronic waste from the mobile phone industry.
Finally, we note that the same products, of the same quality, are manufactured for both the UK and other parts of the world, including places off-grid. Right to Repair discussions, now increasingly prominent in Europe and the US, should also be translated into these contexts where durability and repairability are paramount.
Thirst for more?
We did a teardown with Jamie and Rowan, taking apart a poor-quality solar lamp while assessing its repairability against the Off Grid Solar Scorecard.
With a donation, you can listen to our bonus track. We will match your amount and make a donation to SolarAid.
- Jamie Cross
- Solar What?
- Off Grid Solar Scorecard
- BBC: A history of the world in 100 objects
- Restart’s Solar Device Hall of Shame
[Featured image by Patrick Bentley / Solar Aid]