IT seems the house expert on echolalia was at it again this past week, continuing his lonely campaign to encourage the destruction of both the Philippine environment and its economy with two new arguments. The first was that there is a “looming problem” with the waste generated by solar and other forms of renewable energy (RE). The second was that there is not enough land in the Philippines for all the solar or wind power the country would need to adequately substitute for all that sweet, sweet fossil fuel-powered electricity generation that he evidently would like everyone to believe represents the apex of energy technology development.
Objectively, these are both valid areas of concern with respect to RE, which is why the renewable industry, its advocates and policymakers have prioritized work on both since the very beginning of the global push for RE. Since these are complex and important questions, we’ll address each of them in turn, beginning with the challenge of what to do with the waste created by RE.
The introduction to someone else’s work on the subject, in this case most of an article lifted wholesale from a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), included a disclaimer that the constant barrage of specious arguments about RE is a product of conscience, not financial or other special interests. All well and good, but the assertion rather loses what little dignity it might have contained by immediately being followed by a thinly veiled and completely unsupported accusation that one of the Philippines’ foremost advocates of RE development, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, is being “aided by foreign interests” to “pass local legislation that will prove deleterious to the nation.”
At first glance, the material provided in support of this latest version of the argument that “all RE is bad” appears credible. The HBR is a publication with a largely respectable reputation, and the authors of the piece in question are professors from the global business school Insead and the University of Calgary in Canada.
The argument made by the HBR article is that the rapid push to build RE – primarily solar and wind facilities – will, within the next couple of decades, lead to enormous amounts of trash in the form of discarded solar panels and wind turbine blades as well as used batteries from electric vehicles and energy storage systems. All of these items are technically complex in their construction and contain exotic materials, making them difficult to recycle economically.
All of that is basically true, but if one ventures to read the original article rather than its cherry-picked republished version, it soon becomes apparent that presumably respectable academics writing for a respectable business school’s flagship publication are not immune to being selective about the evidence they present. The data on the projected volume and costs of RE waste were taken from a 2016 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) on the end-of-life management of solar photovoltaic (solar PV) panels. Besides using five-year-old data, which has been updated at least three times since, what the HBR authors pointedly omitted was the entire purpose of the Irena report, the information about research, development and policy responses to the problem of RE waste. The details of those responses make up the bulk of the original Irena report, and demonstrate that, even five years ago, a substantial amount of progress toward building a “circular economy” from RE had been made.
What makes this deliberate omission even more shocking is that the HBR authors acknowledge that they were part of the team that helped to draft the European Union’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive that requires recycling. The WEEE, which is being used as a model for similar laws in other countries, was implemented in 2012 and in 2014 was expanded to include solar PV panels and related equipment.
Just because noted academics, however, choose to abuse their credibility and cast doubt on the question by cherry-picking information does not mean the question has gone away. To find out what the industry itself is doing about it, particularly since the renewable sector here is still relatively unbound when it comes to regulations on equipment end-of-life handling, I put the question to Jenny Lin Ngai, the president of SunSmart.
When it comes to solar panels and related equipment, the industry follows two separate tracks: First, to develop the technology to be as efficient and long-lived as possible; and second, to build a reuse-recycle-reduce program into the product life cycle. In SunSmart’s case, that means working with specialized scrap dealers who are able to manage the safe disposal of old equipment, as well as dedicated recycling facility attached to SunSmart’s factory affiliate in China (there is apparently at least one investor working to set up a similar facility here in the Philippines).
Contrary to the outdated arguments of critics, most of the major parts of solar systems – steel frame parts, the PV panel material and lithium-ion batteries – are already recyclable or can be reused for other purposes. Granted, recycling costs are still relatively high, but these are decreasing rapidly as the volume of materials grows. In addition, the modularity of most equipment means that individual components can be easily repaired or replaced, cutting down the volume of waste.
Having a system for managing end-of-life in place long before that end is reached is critical, as far as Ngai is concerned. “It matters to me because the life of a PV panel is 25 years. … Even if we’re not here, our successors should know who and where to turn to, because otherwise we are a burden to the environment.”
Ngai made another key point that most anti-RE fanatics would probably like to avoid. If recycling solar components is an issue, “Then what about our refrigerators, air conditioners, laptops, PCs, etc. that we are all currently enjoying,” but are almost completely nonrecyclable.
The solar industry, at least, is making an effort to build some end-of-life value into its equipment. Other industries, particularly the wind power sector, which has the challenge of disposing of huge composite turbine blades, are taking a similar perspective. All of this activity is creating an entirely new industry in high-value recycling, thereby closing the loop on the “circular economy” of RE. Of course, the issue of RE waste will require continual effort and investment, but that will become continually easier as end-of-life technology develops and becomes more profitable, just as RE itself has over the past few years. Far from being a deleterious, looming problem for the country, it is now apparent that RE waste presents a looming opportunity. In a post-recession economy, arguing against that is knavery indeed.