Sunshine industries

EVGENIY ALYOSHIN-UNSPLASH

The Department of Energy (DoE) recently commended the solar rooftop installation project of JG Summit in Batangas City. The company was reported to have completed in November nine roof-mounted solar power projects at its petrochemical complex in Southern Luzon, installations that are forecast to result in energy savings of 17.8 gigawatt-hours yearly for the plant.

Given the relatively lower cost of solar panels nowadays compared to several years ago, it seems to make sense for industries with large properties to embark on more rooftop solar projects to save on energy costs. In addition to home and building rooftops, solar panels are also being installed along highways as canopies in Korea, and as pavers for bicycle lanes in the Netherlands.

Solar technology is now available to everybody, from large infrastructure to mobile homes. The Koreans with their solar highway, the Dutch with their solar bike lanes, the Chinese with their solar highway and train stations, and the Indians with their solar train are all showing the way. I believe we should also line our roads, parking lots, and pedestrian walks with solar panels.

The good news is that being where it is in the globe, near the equator, the Philippines has plenty of sunshine. More important, that sunshine is free. It is only natural that we turn more to solar, and perhaps wind, as renewable sources of energy. Hydro is still an option, but is highly dependent on water supply and thus the weather. Geothermal is likewise an alternative.

But the bad news is that solar panels are “also complex pieces of technology that become big, bulky sheets of electronic waste at the end of their lives — and right now, most of the world doesn’t have a plan for dealing with that,” noted sustainability advocacy publication Grist. “The solar e-waste glut is coming,” reported Grist’s Maddie Stone.

“By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about six million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually,” she wrote, adding that “standard electronics recycling methods don’t cut it for solar panels.”

And this is precisely the reason why I believe any advocacy in favor of renewable energy should also include planning and regulation for renewable energy material recycling. Any government approval, particularly for large-scale solar projects, should also require clear plans and guidelines from the proponent for end-of-life recycling or disposal.

After all, if governments will not require companies to develop proper solutions to solar panel disposal, and to comply with government policies that require proper disposal and recycling, then the renewable effort may be for naught as used or broken solar panels will end up in landfills and become solid waste pollution that can also leach toxic materials into the soil.

Currently in operation in the Philippines is a 160-hectare solar power farm in Calatagan, Batangas generating about 64 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Also, in operation are 45-MW and 80-MW solar farms in Negros Occidental and an 18-MW solar plant in Negros Oriental. Then there is a 10-kilowatt floating solar farm in Laguna Lake within Baras, Rizal. We also have a 60-MW solar farm in Zambales and a 120-MW solar farm project in Alaminos, Laguna.

There are also many homes nationwide now making use of solar panels and using solar energy in their residences. Large manufacturing complexes like that of JG Summit in Batangas City also have solar rooftop installations making use of thousands of solar panels. In many localities, streetlights are also powered through small-scale solar panel installations above lamp posts.

I am uncertain if any of these solar projects ever planned for the disposal or recycling of damaged or end-of-life solar panels in the future. I am also uncertain if government regulations are in place regarding proper disposal. Moreover, it does not seem like there are any local facilities that are into solar panel disposal and recycling.

In this line, energy policy cannot be short-sighted and should go beyond energy security. If the government offers incentives to companies that will invest in renewable energy, then it should also require them to provide technologies and facilities to recycle their own waste. Or offer incentives to companies that will go into that business. All solar panels have an end life.

There is an emerging opportunity here for more “sunshine industries.” In 2019, solar panels were said to have produced 720 terawatt-hours of energy globally, or about 3% of the world’s electricity production. But the effort produced 46 million metric tons of solar panels. An estimated 8 million metric tons of decommissioned solar panels could accumulate globally by 2030, which can hit 80 million by 2050.

Simply put, any company that goes into solar panel recycling and disposal will never run out of raw materials starting 2030, which is just six years from now. Even better, instead of buying raw materials, these companies will even be paid by other businesses to receive raw materials. While the investment in a recycling facility may be huge, I think the business will be profitable.

The Clean Water Act and government regulations required industries to clean and recycle their own wastewater. In this line, shouldn’t we also require solar and wind power installations to recycle their own used solar panels and wind turbines? These industries should not abdicate their responsibility to deal with their own waste. Landfills should not be the solution.

As I had written previously, I am all for going renewable, and I believe solar and wind are good options for the Philippines. Add to this geothermal energy. However, when the government and investors plan on these renewable energy projects, are they also planning on how to dispose or recycle damaged or end-of-life solar panels and turbine blades?

We need updated government regulations on proper disposal. We need science- and data-based policies and standards on how to “recycle” renewable energy components. And we need to incentivize investments in facilities and technologies that can put to good use the “waste” generated by the renewable energy industry. The shift to renewables should not be a solid waste management problem of the future.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

matort@yahoo.com