The African junkyard

A bit of internet surfing reveals that there is a market for scrapped solar panels that still work, where secondhand 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,  and this largesse would be welcomed 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 plants, 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 patronising 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 programme to advance mechanised farming in Africa, and also predictably rejected a programme to promote the use of GMOs on the continent, 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 programmes 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 instances 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 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. South Africa was and still is a ground breaker in many energy fields, including nuclear, where there are two pebble bed reactor systems going into the licensing 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 programme in favour of one technology or the other. Part of 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 station fleet on gas. And we are all familiar with the pressure from the nuclear industry and other technology providers, all claiming that their system is ideal for our situation.

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

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 targets set by a UN group. It is refreshing to see that the president of the USA intends to remove that country from their agreements and do 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?  South Africa is responsible for 4% of the global CO2 emissions, yet we are trying to emulate Europe. When other countries are building more and more coal fired stations we, who have a massive coal 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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