This story was originally published on Pháp Luật Plus. The writer was one of the fellows participating in our journalism fellowship with Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
During a parliamentary questioning session of the 14th National Assembly Meeting on November 5th, Ksor Phuoc Ha, an assembly member from Ayun Pa town, Gia Lai province raised a provocative question on how to handle end-of-life solar panels.
The Minister of Industry and Trade, Tran Tuan Anh, emphasized that at present, the local authorities and the investors were responsible for their solar waste management. Ha said the Minister of Industry and Trade had not fulfilled his responsibility properly. She emphasized that the local officials and people in Ayun Pa town are very confused about the effectiveness of solar energy.
“What will happen to solar panels and batteries once they reach the end of their life? Bringing them to the moon or using them to heat beef and pork?” Ha asked.
The boom in rooftop solar power
Rooftop solar power usage in Vietnam has been booming in the past two years. The country’s largest power company Vietnam Electricity (EVN) reported that the country has a total of 51,769 rooftop solar power projects with a capacity of 1,355 MWp as of September 23. More than 60% of the customers are households.
By the end of 2019, Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to reach the largest installed capacity of solar power in Southeast Asia, with 44% of the total capacity, according to figures from Wood Mackenzie, a consulting firm in the energy industry. According to a recent report of the International Energy Agency, Vietnam is projected to have 7,400 MW installed solar operational capacity in 2020, while Thailand only generates about 3,300 MW from solar energy.
According to EVN, in the upcoming time, millions of households, as well as many offices, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, commercial centers, factories will have solar panels installed on their roofs. A UK solar investor and developer company, Shire Oak International Limited, has been installing more than 720 rooftop solar projects in domestic factories across the country.
“The benefit of installing a 100kWp solar power system is equivalent to planting 350 trees,” Shire Oak International Limited marketing and PR director, Son Bui, said.
Apart from generating electricity, a solar panel system installed in the roof also insulates heat, helping prevent a drop in temperature in the facility. Wide usage of rooftop solar power also contributes to reducing the pressure on the grid load, saving the cost of transmission lines.
Looming waste problem
Researchers of energy management from Prince of Songkla University (Thailand) Shahariar Chowdhury and coauthors wrote that the recent boom in solar power projects might lead to a waste problem in the future.
According to their article, “An overview of solar photovoltaic panels‘ end-of-life material recycling” that is published in the January issue of the Energy Strategy Reviews, global installed PV capacity reached around 400 GW at the end of 2017 and is expected to rise further to 4500 GW by 2050. Considering an average panel lifetime of 25 years, the worldwide solar PV waste is anticipated to reach between 4%-14% of total generation capacity by 2030 and rise to over 80% (around 78 million tonnes) by 2050. Therefore, the disposal of PV panels will become a pertinent environmental issue in the next decades.
The composition of a solar panel includes glass (76%), plastic (10%), aluminum (8%), silicon (5%), metal (1%). All of the materials are recyclable without causing harm to the environment.
However, Vietnam is still in the development stage of solar power without a modern recycling line. The country is still behind compared to European countries where solar waste recycling technology is improving thanks to large and stable demand.
In Australia, many solar panels have already been decommissioned. But experts predicted that waste from solar power would start to emerge significantly by 2025. By 2050 the projected amount of waste from retired solar panels in this country is over 1,500 kilotons.
In Vietnam, there are no official statistics on the amount of solar waste at present or in the future. Many people believe that the rooftop solar energy industry is still in its infancy and the problem of dealing with defunct solar panels is not expected for another 20 years.
The management of end-of-life solar panels comply with the National Technical Regulation on Hazardous Waste Thresholds and other hazardous waste management regulations. Minister Tran Tuan Anh also emphasized that it is the investors’ responsibility for their solar waste management.
“The suppliers of solar panels always commit to a written contract with the investors of rooftop solar projects on the recovery of broken panels and the management of hazardous electric circuits”, he said.
Notably, Vietnam still lacks policies, finance and initiatives to promote the development of such recycling or refurbishing industries. Research Center for Energy and Green Growth (CEGR) director, Ha Dang Son, said the country had seen “many distortions of the government’s solar energy policies from 2018 to 2020.” Accordingly, creating a circular economy for solar and battery waste will need a strong commitment from policymakers and industry.
The country currently does not have requisite guidelines nor the proper infrastructure for a solar waste management system to reuse, refurbish and recycle solar waste. Therefore, the Prime Minister has assigned the Ministry of Science and Technology to research and develop a standard for domestic solar panel installation systems as well as solar waste management.
Shire Oak International’s Son Bui said the company had developed a team to do research on this matter. “When the market demand is large enough, the company will have a recycling plant because this is greatly beneficial.”
Despite that, many investors still believe that such processing facilities would be underused as many would run to landfills as a low-cost disposal option.