India Is Using More Solar Energy—but It Carries a Lead Risk

This story originally appeared in Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.At the 2018 United Nations climate meeting in Poland, the European Union and the Indian-led International Solar Alliance (ISA) signed a joint declaration that climate change activists say could help India meet its renewable energy target by 2022. The country is one of several—including China, Brazil, and Bangladesh—that have announced ambitious initiatives to expand their use of solar power. A year later, at the next U.N. climate summit in Madrid, India’s environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, urged more countries to join the ISA “to speed up this alliance to trap solar energy in a big way.” More than 60 have signed and ratified the agreement.For advocates of renewable energy and climate change activists, these initiatives seemed like good news. Fast-growing nations like India, after all, are expected to rapidly increase use of planet-warming fossil fuels in coming decades, and adoption of renewable alternatives could help to dampen the environmental and climate impacts as their economies expand. But some public health researchers are concerned that the rapid and aggressive push for solar power in some developing countries can have a frequently overlooked side-effect: Localized spikes in lead poisoning.
The problem, they say, is that a portion of solar panel installations in these countries will not be connected to the national electricity network—as they typically are in the U.S., U.K., and Denmark. Indeed, while grid connectivity is reliable and rooftop solar installations don’t need lead batteries for on-site storage in many bigger Indian cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, in smaller towns, and remote rural areas—where off-grid solar activity is underway—the quality of connection to the national electricity grid is poor. Many villages get electricity for only two or five hours a day, and the power supply from the grid is erratic and unpredictable, meaning that many solar projects in these areas continue to be heavily reliant on lead-acid batteries for storing unused solar power.
The situation is similar across the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa, some 600 million people still lack access to electricity. In areas where grid connectivity is infeasible, microgrids that rely on solar or other types of renewable energy may offer solutions. According to a report by the United States Agency for International Development and the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “the vast majority of batteries in micro-grid applications worldwide have been lead-acid” to date. In Kenya, where the government is aiming to provide electricity to all residents by 2022, off-grid systems play an important role. And according to a draft report prepared for the country’s Energy Regulatory Commission, lead-acid batteries are the main form of energy storage available on the market.

Meanwhile in India, tens of millions of households remain without power. Where grid connections prove impossible, lead-acid batteries will almost certainly be used.

As in most developing countries, recycling of lead-acid batteries in India is also not adequately regulated to protect public health. This results in lead being released back into the environment. “This is the, kind of, dirty side of renewable energy,” said Pamli Deka, associate director of the energy program at the World Resources Institute in India. While solar energy is considered clean, she said, not many organizations and energy enterprises are talking about the downsides, “for various reasons just like the oil and gas industry would not talk about the bad things of oil and gas.”

While the impacts of prolonged lead exposure are extremely well known, those working in or living near recycling plants aren’t always aware of the dangers, which include higher risks of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. The heavy metal can also cause damage to the kidneys, reproductive system, and the central nervous system. And while for adults, lead poisoning is one of the most significant hazards to occupational health, for children’s health, the risks are even higher.