Q&A: Environmental Impact of Solar Home Systems
Written by Lynn Hamerlinck on 29 April 2022
Max Steenbrink is always looking for solutions to fight climate change. In 2021, he conducted research for his thesis for Lendahand on the environmental impact of solar home systems, leading to graduating with a Master of Science in Urban Environmental Management at Wageningen University.
How much CO2 emissions does a solar home system avoid? Does it depend on the light bulb you use? How can the reporting on this improve? Today, Max Steenbrink shares the findings from his research with us.
Q1 - What was your personal interest in doing thesis research for Lendahand?
The reality for taxi drivers in Ivory Coast opened my eyes to the financing problem that Lendahand is championing. Three years ago I did an internship at a cocoa exporter in Ivory Coast and there I talked a lot with taxi drivers. They often work more than 10 hours a day, with no profit. They have to rent the cars at such a high rate that saving for the car rent or owning a taxi is impossible. In addition, I have been involved in fighting climate change through my studies and volunteer positions for a number of years. These two themes were reflected in Lendahand's investments in sustainable energy in emerging countries.
Q2 - What is the cause and objective of your research?
Lendahand has been financing solar home systems for 6 years and also reports on the avoided CO2 emissions thanks to these systems. But, those estimates are dependent on the alternative energy sources and the amount of energy that a solar home system replaces. I wanted to investigate how sensitive the avoided CO2 emissions are to variations in these parameters. My ultimate goal? Gain additional insights about these mechanisms, and so improve reporting on the environmental benefits of solar home systems.
Q3 - How did you approach the research?
The main alternatives to a solar home system are a diesel generator, kerosene lamp, flashlight, and the electricity grid. First, I quantified the environmental impact of all energy sources over the entire product life cycle in 18 impact categories. Then I selected the most important ones, keeping in mind the impact of an average world resident over a year. I also collected data on the light sources used in five countries across Sub-Saharan Africa. This allowed me to calculate the total environmental impact per province, and therefore also the average impact that a solar home system can have in a certain province.
Q4 - What are the main findings from your research?
The research proves once again how harmful kerosene lamps are to the environment. A kerosene lamp emits about 465 times more CO2 per year than a solar home system, and 254 times as much particulate matter as a lamp connected to an average African energy grid. In addition to environmental damage, these lamps are also very harmful to people.
In addition to light, solar home systems also provide electricity. However, the environmental benefits of a solar home system compared to the electricity grid, flashlight or diesel generator are more nuanced and depend very much on the type of light bulb you are comparing it to. For example, an incandescent lamp consumes 36 times more energy than an efficient LED lamp. For CO2 emissions, a solar home system remains the best in all cases, but an average electricity grid scores better than a solar home system on the pollution of ecosystems (for the category “ecotoxicity”).
Finally, it turned out that the avoided CO2 emissions fluctuate quite a bit per country because the most commonly used light sources and the emissions per kWh of the electricity grid differ greatly per country.
Q5 - What are your recommendations for Lendahand?
Lendahand can invest in projects that increase energy efficiency. For instance, projects that replace incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs. This saves up to 56 kg CO2 per year.
Data on light sources per country provides a good indication of what exactly a solar home system replaces. You can compare the data with the CO2 emissions of the electricity grid per country. It should be noted that the production of batteries in particular, may cause damage to ecosystems, resulting in loss of biodiversity. This is research that an umbrella organization such as GOGLA could dive into.
Q6 - What would you advise investors in emerging market solar companies when assessing positive and negative impacts?
Solar home systems often lead to extra energy consumption and therefore an improvement in the quality of life. The extra emissions that arise during a solar home system production are therefore not necessarily compensated by avoided emissions during use.
Absolute CO2 emissions must be reduced. That is the reality if we want to contain climate change. The required reduction will not come from people in developing countries, but it has to come from us: rich investors in Western countries. This does not alter the fact that these systems are an improvement over alternatives such as diesel generators and an average electricity grid on fossil fuels. Ecosystem degradation can be a problem with solar home systems, especially if the products end up in a landfill. It seems to me that it’s the sellers' responsibility to anticipate this and facilitate correct collection. However, the most important aspect of these investments is not environmental but the progress that ensures a stable and clean energy supply.