MUTARE, Zimbabwe—Chinese businesses are taking advantage of the rising demand for renewable sources of energy in Africa to dump substandard solar panels on the continent’s market, energy experts say.
In Zimbabwe, Nobert Mataruse, an engineer with the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA), recently warned people to be cautious about substandard products.
“In recent months, we have witnessed an influx of solar products which are not appropriate,” said Mataruse, as cited by the government-owned newspaper The Herald.
Zimbabwe, like many countries in Africa, is facing an energy crisis, and the government is advocating for the wider use of solar energy. But many products entering the market are not meeting local standards.
A vast majority of the currently failing and defective solar panels can be traced back to Chinese manufacturing plants, Tawanda Chitiyo, an energy expert based in Zimbabwe, told The Epoch Times.
“The growth of the local market has resulted in high inflows of PV [photovoltaic] products in the country. That’s resulted in many substandard products finding their way into the market, with negative consequences for consumers,” said Chitiyo, who is also the director of Tawanda Energy.
Tawanda Energy operates in the energy, biofuel, petrochemical, and related industries, utilizing community-scale bio-refineries to produce diesel, natural gas, electricity, and bio-char from sewage sludge and waste plastic.
Chitiyo said the lure of a bargain is strong, and saving hundreds or even thousands of dollars is an attractive proposition, especially when the quality deficits of lower-priced panels aren’t immediately apparent, making Africa a dumping ground for cheap and defective solar panels.
“Like all manufactured goods, solar panels and other solar energy system components degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time. But the rate of failure of Chinese solar panels is now a great concern. There are no industry-wide figures about defective solar panels; no one is sure how pervasive the problem is,” he said.
Counterfeit solar products in the marketplace are now a key challenge facing solar energy in the country, Chitiyo said.
“Products from such suppliers often suffer from uneven performance and low power output, and do not perform according to specifications written on their data plates. Another problem is low-quality components and fittings, which sometimes lead to the complete failure of solar panels,” he said.
Solar panels, he said, are relatively uniform in appearance and have no moving parts, so it’s difficult—if not impossible—for the average consumer to gauge a particular panel’s quality when compared to another, even side by side.
“Most suppliers offer a 25-year warranty, but malfunctions and failures usually surface a few months from purchase, especially solar lighting systems, leading to losses,” he said.
Chitiyo said these issues have also created a new problem of how to dispose of these solar panels, resulting in environmental problems since there is insufficient expertise in the safe disposal of solar panels.
Innovation and Regulation
Tawanda Energy is collaborating with European technology providers, including Danish company infinityPV, and is in the process of setting up innovative proprietary processes that will enable them to manufacture and deliver leading-edge solar products while cutting the cost.
“We plan to start the local production of organic solar cells. These solar cells are a third-generation printed solar photovoltaic technology for energy production in small-scale niche applications to large-scale installations such as building-integrated photovoltaics,” Chitiyo said.
He said the government and vocational training institutes in Zimbabwe must invest more in local research and development in the production of photovoltaic panels.
“We need more solar technology programs at our training institutes to generate reliable solar experts. We are also advocating for the local manufacture of solar panels and products, a move that would enable the majority of Zimbabweans to purchase the equipment at cheaper prices and in the local currency compared to imported solar products,” he said.
Chitiyo said the government through ZERA should inspect all solar products at points of entry and should start conducting impromptu inspections to seize all substandard solar products sold in retail shops.
He called on local entrepreneurs to establish independent testing labs that will be able to track the quality of panels.
“Lack of suitable environment, lack of affordable funds, lack of awareness, and lack of capacity building seems to sum up the barriers to PV penetration and thus explain the Zimbabwean and African PV paradox, whereby the best-served countries in terms of solar radiation are the lowest in terms of PV installations,” he said.