By Marvin Tort
Since the start of the Community Quarantine about six months ago, I have been hearing a lot about how a number of Metro Manila residents are waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic in their “home” provinces. Some have quit their jobs and moved back for good, while others have opted to temporarily do Work-From-Home or Online School from the comfort of their provincial abodes.
I also know of some people now looking for farm or beach lots in Central or Southern Luzon. They are in search of affordable properties, small but secured and easy to maintain, not too far from Metro Manila, and with easy access to basic goods and services. They want to build “tiny” homes, where they can also have home gardens to grow their own food.
And with the tiny home concept comes the possibility of building small but efficient environment-friendly houses with water-containment systems to catch rain, and solar panels to help generate electricity, and with focus on waste segregation, composting, vegetable gardening, and maybe organically growing some livestock. The aim is to also minimize one’s carbon “footprint.”
Moving forward, however, I think people start also looking at “renewing” or recycling “renewables.” For the fact of the matter is, anything and everything still has some form of environmental impact, and nothing is completely carbon-free. So, for anyone contemplating renewable energy systems, they should also be mindful of disposal implications.
Take the case of solar energy. Home-based solar energy systems are environment-friendly; make use of “free” energy from the sun; can be easy to set up; and can be cost-effective in the long run. More important, it can be a reliable source of energy particularly in off-grid areas, or far-flung places that lack electric service like remote mountain- or beach-communities.
However, such systems still require manufactured solar panels, and even high-capacity batteries to store energy that can be used in the evenings or during cloudy or stormy days. These batteries are recharged when the sun is out. The thing is, solar panels and solar batteries all have a specific life. In short, they will eventually reach a point of replacement — and disposal.
And this is where the unforeseen and unintended problems lie. My concern, at this point, is that the shift to renewables, whether at the home or industry level, is a potential solid waste management problem down the line. Unless, we start manufacturing and installing equipment and renewable energy systems that can actually be recycled or “renewed” later on.
According to the UK Solar Trade Association, solar farms in the UK range from anywhere between one and 100 acres (or roughly from 4,000 square meters to 40 hectares). About 25 acres or roughly 10 hectares of solar panels are required to generate five megawatts of electricity, that can power an estimated 1,500 homes annually, based on an average annual household consumption of 3,300 kWh of electricity or about 275 kWh per month.
I don’t have any estimates as to how many solar panels are required to generate five megawatts of electricity. But, one can imagine the number to run in the thousands if talking about a 10-hectare solar farm. And the average life of each panel varies, depending on care and maintenance. The good news is that panel life estimates range from anywhere between 25 and 40 years.
The bad news: 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,” according to sustainability advocacy publication Grist, which describes itself as “and independent, irreverent news outlet and network of innovators working toward a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck.”
“The solar e-waste glut is coming,” reports Grist’s Maddie Stone on Aug. 13. “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 also wrote that “while the latter number is a small fraction of the total e-waste humanity produces each year, standard electronics recycling methods don’t cut it for solar panels. Recovering the most valuable materials from one, including silver and silicon, requires bespoke recycling solutions.”
And here lies the problem. If companies do not develop proper solutions for solar panel disposal, along with government policies that support their widespread adoption, then those discarded solar panels will mostly end up in landfills. And since the panels can also contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, dumping them in landfills is a potential environmental hazard, says Grist.
As early as 2018, Forbes contributor Michael Shellenberger, who writes on energy and the environment, already warned that “the problem of solar panel disposal ‘will explode with full force in two or three decades and wreck the environment’ because it ‘is a huge amount of waste and they are not easy to recycle’,” as he quoted a senior Chinese solar official who was a 40-year veteran of the US solar industry.
He also wrote that “researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) undertook a study for US solar-owning utilities to plan for end-of-life and concluded that solar panel ‘disposal’ in ‘regular landfills was not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil’ and so ‘disposal is potentially a major issue’.”
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. In the works are a 60-MW solar farm in Zambales and a 120-MW solar farm project in Alaminos, Laguna. And then, there are countless homes all over the country now making use of solar panels installed in their residences.
I am all for going renewable, and I believe solar is a good option. However, when companies and investors planned on these solar projects, and for consumers with “solar” homes, did they already consider how to dispose or recycle damaged or end-of-life solar panels in the future? Do we actually have government regulations in place regarding proper disposal? Do we have science- and data-based standards being applied as to how to dispose of old solar panels?
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council