Counterfeits holding back solar power in rural Ethiopia

Lack of access to electricity is a key factor holding back the development of rural areas in low-income countries and, while solar power could be a big catalyst for change, counterfeit panels are holding back its rollout.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal Energy for Sustainable Development that looked at solar photovoltaic (PV) system use in rural households in Ethiopia, which traditionally have relied on kerosene for power.

Ethiopia has launched a major drive to provide electricity across the country, but even when that is completed – scheduled for 2025 – only around two-thirds of the population will be connected to the grid.

Reducing kerosene use through the use of PVs could cut costs for households by $65 to $75 per year in a country where low-paid workers can earn as little as $26 per month. Solar would provide power for three to five hours a day, reducing exposure to kerosene which can damage health and greenhouse gas emissions.

“The primary challenge facing solar users in rural southern Ethiopia today is the flooding of the market with poor quality and counterfeit products,” write the researchers from Hawassa University in Ethiopia and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Because of the very high cost of genuine equipment, despite falls in price in recent years, “many of the solar products currently in use in the study areas were purchased from illegal (black) markets that have no government approval, nor product guarantee,” they add.

Customers were also forced to turn to black markets as there is an unreliable supply of solar power devices from legal importers and retailers.

All told, almost half of the PV users polled during the study reported failure in their solar PV systems that required them to purchase replacement components. There were reports of panel failure, burning of lamps, battery failure, and reduced performance within a short period.

They cite a sampling study of 17 panels purchased from local markets in five developing countries – including Ethiopia – which all failed to meet quality standards.

Ethiopia could encourage the rollout of solar power by making the equipment free of VAT, import tariffs and other trade barriers to reduce costs, and offering subsidies and affordable loans to help households afford genuine products, the researchers conclude.

“Another important measure could be developing and enforcing sound solar PV regulatory frameworks and standards to aid the market for quality-verified solar products.”

Image by teresa cotrim from Pixabay

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