It appears the echolalia home expert was back last week, continuing his lonely campaign to promote the destruction of both the Philippine environment and its economy with two new arguments. The first was that there was a “looming problem” with the waste generated by solar and other forms of renewable energy (RE). The second was that there wasn't enough land in the Philippines for all of the solar or wind power the country would need to adequately replace all of the sweet, sweet fossil fuel power generation that he obviously wants everyone to believe that they are at the forefront of the development of power engineering.
Objectively speaking, these are both legitimate concerns about RE, which is why the renewables industry, its proponents and policy makers have prioritized work on both since the global push for RE began. Since these are complex and important issues, we will address each of them in turn, starting with the challenge of what to do with the waste generated by RE.
The introduction to someone else's work on the subject, in this case most of an article from a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR), contained a disclaimer that the constant flurry of bogus arguments about RE is a product of conscience, no financial or other special interests. All well and good, but rather the claim loses what little dignity it could have contained, being immediately followed by a thinly veiled and totally unfounded accusation that one of the main proponents of the Philippine RE development, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian “Aided” by foreign interests “to” pass local laws that will prove harmful to the nation “.
At first glance, the material that supports this latest version of the “all RE is bad” argument appears credible. The HBR is a publication with a largely respectable reputation, and the authors of the article in question are professors at Insead Global Business School and the University of Calgary in Canada.
The HBR article argues that the rapid construction of RE – mainly solar and wind turbines – will lead to enormous amounts of waste in the next decades in the form of discarded solar modules and wind turbine blades such as used batteries from electric vehicles and energy storage systems. All of these articles are technically complex in their construction and contain exotic materials that make economic recycling difficult.
All of this is basically correct, but if one dares to read the original article rather than its newly published version, it quickly becomes clear that presumably reputable academics writing for a prestigious business school's flagship publication are not immune, if it's about the evidence you present. The data on the forecast quantities and costs of RE waste was taken from a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) from 2016 on the end-of-life management of photovoltaic (solar PV) modules. In addition to using five-year-old data that has been updated at least three times since then, the HBR authors have specifically omitted the entire purpose of the Irena report, which is to provide information on research, development and policy responses to the RE waste problem. The details of these answers make up the bulk of the original Irena report and show that even five years ago there was significant progress in building a “circular economy” from renewable energy sources.
What makes this deliberate omission even more shocking is the fact that the HBR writers acknowledge being part of the team that helped draft the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which requires recycling . The WEEE, which serves as a model for similar laws in other countries, was introduced in 2012 and expanded to include solar modules and associated equipment in 2014.
Just because well-known academics abuse their credibility and cherry-pick the question doesn't mean the question is gone. To find out what the industry itself is doing about it, especially since the renewable sector is still relatively unbound in terms of the regulations for the disposal of devices, I asked Jenny Lin Ngai, the president of SunSmart.
When it comes to solar panels and related equipment, the industry is pursuing two separate paths: first, making the technology as efficient and durable as possible; and second, to incorporate a reuse-recycling-reduction program into the product lifecycle. In the case of SunSmart, this means working with specialized scrap dealers who are able to manage the safe disposal of old equipment, as well as a dedicated recycling facility attached to SunSmart's factory in China (apparently at least one investor is working on a similar plant to be built here in the Philippines).
Contrary to the outdated arguments of the critics, most large 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. The recycling costs are still relatively high, but they decrease rapidly as the amount of material increases. In addition, the modularity of most devices means that individual components can be easily repaired or replaced, which reduces the amount of waste.
From Ngai's point of view, it is of vital importance to have an end-of-life management system long before that end is reached. “It is important to me because the lifespan of a PV module is 25 years. … Even if we are not here, our successors should know who and where to turn, otherwise we will pollute the environment.”
Ngai made another important point that most anti-RE fanatics are likely to want to avoid. If recycling solar components is an issue, “what about our refrigerators, air conditioners, laptops, PCs, etc., which we all currently enjoy” but which are almost entirely non-recyclable.
At least the solar industry tries to give its systems a certain value at the end of their service life. Other industries, particularly the wind power industry, which is faced with the challenge of disposing of giant composite turbine blades, see a similar perspective. All of these activities create a completely new industry for high-quality recycling and thus close the loop of RE's “circular economy”. Of course, the issue of RE waste requires continuous effort and investment, but that becomes easier and easier as legacy technology develops and becomes more profitable, just like RE itself has in recent years. Far from being a harmful, looming problem for the country, it is now evident that RE waste is an impending opportunity. To argue against this in a post-recession economy is indeed a joke.