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Victoria Darbyshire
Business Development Executive Circular Economy

When a University of Edinburgh research team discovered that off-grid solar energy devices were failing the vulnerable communities who rely on them and that they make a significant contribution to e-waste, they collaborated with like-minded charity professionals and product design specialists on an EPSRC IAA-funded project that set out to reduce waste and provide users with reliable, repairable technology.

Shining a light on unsustainable practices

Off-grid solar devices provide vital electricity to people living in energy poverty in refugee communities and developing countries, but many existing solar products break down easily, rendering them useless to those who depend on them. The failure of these devices contributes to the global problem of plastic pollution, while their premature and improper disposal also represents significant energy waste.

Jamie Cross, Professor of Social and Economic Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, had led a team in conducting extensive field research in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where off-grid solar devices are heavily relied upon. The team saw how people would adapt technologies to contexts of use, and encountered a widespread culture of repair.

Having seen people struggle to function with failing technology that could not be fixed or repurposed, Professor Cross and his team were eager to facilitate and promote the cultures of repair that they had witnessed in the field, while challenging the unsustainable design practices entrenched in the off-grid solar industry.

A shared goal

When the research team initially presented their ideas on repairability to off-grid solar industry representatives, they were met with scepticism by some insiders who felt that academics couldn’t fully appreciate the intricacies and restrictions of manufacture.

In order to prove that their goals were achievable, the team partnered with CREATIVenergie, a charity with a mission to ensure clean energy access and sustainable consumption in developing countries, and Cramasie, a Scottish product design consultancy that believes in responsible production and consumption.

With a bolstered skillset of academic knowledge, extensive experience of the challenge at hand, and product design expertise, the expanded team applied for and secured EPSRC IAA funding through Edinburgh Innovations, which then allowed them to make the leap from concept to a fully realised Solar What?! prototype that was suitable and ready for large-scale manufacture.

A beacon for repairability in off-grid solar energy

The Solar What?! team developed two devices: a pocket-sized rechargeable torch and an adaptor unit that can be connected to a solar panel to charge other devices as well as providing light. To facilitate user adaptations and repairability, each device comprises three sections held together by easily removable screws. They run on standard mobile phone batteries that are readily available in context and can be easily replaced, and all components can be unsoldered and replaced. To maximise societal and environmental benefit, Solar What?! designs have been made available for use under a Creative Commons license, and can be freely downloaded from the project website.

The success of these devices in demonstrating a sustainable alternative to existing manufacturing practice has attracted significant industry attention. The designs won an internationally recognised iF Design Award in 2020, and an acquisition was made by the National Museums of Scotland to include the Solar What?! prototypes into its permanent collection as an example of Scottish technological innovation with a social and environmental conscience.

Perhaps most significantly, GOGLA, the global association for the off-grid solar energy industry, has used the designs as case studies in its E-waste Toolkit to show industry stakeholders how design for repairability can be incorporated into their products.

Lead Designer and Project Manager Rowan Spear reflects on the collaboration:

Working with external partners allowed us not only to access skills outside our team, but it has broadened and diversified our professional network. Partnerships have enabled us to produce manufacturable and award-winning design concepts which, most importantly, continue to effectively influence the move towards greater product sustainability in the off-grid solar sector.

Solar What?!



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