The future of solar panels: A serious question for Southeast Asia

Ksor Hbo Khap was laughed at when she stood up in Vietnam’s National Assembly and suggested the need for a solar panel recycling plan. But waste created by the solar power industry is no joke in Southeast Asia

Giap Nguyen
September 27, 2021
The future of solar panels: A serious question for Southeast Asia
This photograph taken on April 23, 2019 shows solar panel installations and a wind turbine at the Phu Lac wind farm in southern Vietnam's Binh Thuan province. Photo Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

“How will we recycle solar panels? Will we fly them to the moon or sun dry beef on them?” Ksor Hbo Khap put the issue before the minister of trade and industry last year. 

The questions marked the first time solar panel recycling was publicly debated in Vietnam’s National Assembly and instantly sparked laughter across the mostly male national congress, which is dominated by the Kinh ethnic group. But Ksor, a female and member of an ethnic minority, had reasons for her concern, which was widely reported in Vietnamese media.

For the last three years, Ksor’s impoverished, sleepy province of Gia Lai in the Central Highlands has witnessed an unprecedented boom of solar power development thanks to Mother Nature’s unlimited gift: sunlight.

The province enjoys an average of 1,900 to 2,200 hours of sunlight per year, equivalent to 25% of the year for the region, which is used to create the hometown specialty: sundried beef.  

To benefit from the government’s feed-in-tariff (FIT) policy providing a guaranteed above-market price for renewable energy producers, investors across the country flocked to Gia Lai and other regions with potential. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars into covering the red basalt soil with hundreds of thousands of ocean blue panels across an area the size of 100 soccer fields.

Ksor Hbo Khap asks her question to parliament. Video: VTC NOW/YouTube

Gia Lai now has two solar plants with a total capacity of 84 megawatts (MW), two approved projects with a total capacity of 74 MW and an additional five projects that have been added to the province’s planning with a combined capacity of 654 MW. Investment in floating solar farms and rooftop solar power projects has become a new trend in the area.

Gia Lai is just part of a bigger picture of Vietnam’s impressive solar power development. Thanks to the generous FIT, income tax and land-lease payment exemptions, since 2017 the number of solar power projects has skyrocketed from virtually zero to more than 100.

By the end of last year, Vietnam boasted the highest installed capacity of solar power in Southeast Asia, generating 16,500 MW of electricity and becoming the world’s third-largest solar market. Mergers and acquisitions in solar power have also ramped up. Rooftop solar installations last year grew by more than 2,400%, from nearly 380 MW peak in 2019 to nearly 9,600 MW peak, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Solar electricity has even been used in remote areas of the Spratly Islands off the coast of southern Vietnam. 

Solar panels have an average lifespan of 20 to 30 years, but that does not mean they will all be decommissioned at the same time. In fact, a small number of broken panels have already been put in storage in Vietnam. 

Broken solar panels found in a solar power project in Quy Nhon, Vietnam after the storm in 2019. Photo: Phung Anh Tuan

Phung Anh Tuan, a professor of electrical engineering at Hanoi University of Science & Technology, was deeply concerned to see 3,000 broken solar panels piled up at a solar power project in central Vietnam. They were blown away in 2019 by a large tropical storm and have remained in storage while the Japanese investor seeks a local partner to recycle them. 

“I’m so worried because I haven’t seen any available suitable solution while the Ministry of Trade and Investment just focuses on the immediate benefits,” Tuan said. “I hope there will be a proper policy on recycling these hazardous waste materials to prepare for the situation in the next 3 to 5 years.”

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, former frontrunners are accelerating new solar energy developments. Thailand, which began developing solar power ten years ago, has around 3.12 gigawatts (GW) of solar generation capacity installed and is aiming for 15.574 GW of solar power generation capacity by 2037, according to consulting firm Apricum. (1 GW equals 1,000 MW.)

In Malaysia, between 2014 and 2019, solar is the only renewable energy source that has grown, with a massive 432% increase in installed capacity.

The Philippines had an installed photovoltaic capacity of 1.06 GW under the country’s renewable energy law at the end of June 2020, with the Philippines government planning to install 15 GW of renewables capacity by 2030. Laos is targeting an increase in the share of small scale renewables in its total energy consumption of 30% by 2025.

In July, Singapore unveiled one of the world’s biggest floating solar power farms, covering an area the size of 45 soccer fields on the Tengeh Reservoir. The island city-state aims to quadruple its solar energy production by 2025.

But this is going to create an environmental problem down the line for mature markets as solar panels will be a troublesome type of waste with which the whole world is still struggling to deal. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental body, projected up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their lives by 2050, equivalent to the total weight of more than 10.4 million adult elephants. 

Every year, the world is likely to generate about 6 million metric tons of new solar waste. If not properly recycled, solar panels, which contain toxic materials like lead and cadmium, end up in landfills, poisoning underground water and soil. 

poor and developing nations, like those in Southeast Asia, are at “higher risks of suffering the consequences of toxic solar waste”

That may sound like a distant future, but only 10% of solar panels are currently recycled in the US, while the rest either goes to landfills or is exported to developing countries with weak environmental protections, Recycle PV Solar CEO Sam Vanderhoof said in an August 2020 interview with environmental news website Grist. Vanderhoof’s US-based company is dedicated to solar panel recycling.

The situation may get even worse as poor and developing nations, like those in Southeast Asia, are at “higher risks of suffering the consequences of toxic solar waste”, as their governments are often not prepared to deal with it, according to German researchers at the the Stuttgart Institute for Photovoltaics.

Solar panels are often labeled as a ‘green’ technology, but they are not green until they are properly recycled

“The dangers and hazards caused by toxins in photovoltaic modules appear particularly high in countries where there are no organised waste disposal systems,” they wrote.

“Solar panels are often labeled as a ‘green’ technology, but they are not green until they are properly recycled,” said Meng Tao, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University. 

PV CYCLE – Recycling of silicon based PV modules. Video: PV CYCLE/YouTube

To create a circular recycling economy around solar panels, Southeast Asia faces major challenges, just as in other regions. There is yet to be a solar recycling plant due to the lack of sufficient decommissioned panels, financial incentive and regulatory uncertainty. Due to the industry’s infancy, recycling solar panels remains unprofitable, even in mature markets like the US or Europe. 

“In fact it is quite expensive to recycle solar panels in the US,” said Meng Tao, who researches sustainable solar technologies. He noted recycling can cost $20 per panel, or $1,000 per metric ton, which is much higher than the $1 per panel, or $50 a ton, to use a landfill.

With the exception of European Union nations, no country has legally mandated solar panel recycling. The EU  requires 85% collection and 80% recycling of materials used in photovoltaic panels. Meanwhile, Japan is the only Asian country promoting solar recycling by subsidizing recycling equipment, although it has not mandated solar waste recycling. 

The US also does not have solar recycling mandates. California early this year passed a law to allow generators of decommissioned photovoltaic solar panels to manage them more economically as universal waste as opposed to hazardous waste. This means they will be regulated the same as batteries, electronic devices or equipment containing mercury. 

The situation is more uncertain in Southeast Asia. 

“The lack of comprehensive guidelines and regulation frameworks in the region, particularly in Vietnam, also contributes to defining the solar recycling industry as a cumbersome business for recyclers,” said Dang Cao Trinh, analyst at business consulting company Dezan Shira & Associates.

Currently there are not enough solar panels to recycle, Trinh explained, noting modern recycling lines implemented in other developed countries are not applicable to Vietnam because of unstable supply and demand.

“This requires foreign and local industry players in the domestic field to heavily invest in Research and Development (R&D) that perfectly fits the local conditions, and to rely on the foreign expertise for technology transfer,” Trinh said. “This will certainly result in much higher initial capital for factory establishment, discouraging the recyclers from building a standard recycling chain as planned.”

Thailand’s solar panel and battery recycling process still has many challenges including waste collection, the amount and types of waste affecting recycling techniques and investment value, as well as the suitable technology for the country, according to a Thai government study.

There may be rays of hope for the region, starting with new technological initiatives to recycle solar panels. The International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Program in 2018 reported 178 PV recycling patents had been filed. Of those, 128 focused on crystalline silicon technology and another 44 were for compound technologies, including thin film modules. Almost half the patents originated in China, although increased activity had been witnessed in Korea and Japan. 

In Singapore, Sembcorp Industries and Singapore Polytechnic started to collaborate on commercialising Singapore’s first solar panel recycling process in 2019. Both partners are looking to commission a pilot solar recycling plant in two years. 

Singapore, a regional hub of technological innovation, is spearheading its research on recycling solar panels. The Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore , the national institute for applied solar energy research, is collaborating with the Singapore Polytechnic and the National Environmental Agency to implement a novel recycling technique: shock wave fragmentation, which enables a selective separation of the various materials that compose a solar module, with particular attention to metals.

While regional governments are contemplating how to properly recycle solar panels, thousands will continue to be decommissioned

In Thailand, a plan to build a complete solar panel and battery recycling plant is being studied by the Electricity Generating Authority and the Department of Industrial Works, as the country anticipates “an overload of solar panel waste”. 

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government is aiming to work with a private facility to recycle solar panels within the next ten years. The Ministry of Science and Technology in Vietnam also is looking to research and develop a system of standards for photovoltaic panels, as well as a plan to handle the panels after the project expires. 

While regional governments are contemplating how to properly recycle solar panels, thousands will continue to be decommissioned. 

As for Ksor Hbo Khap, this year she stopped self-nominating to be a member of the Parliament and instead focuses on her work as a policewoman. But her questions remain a sticking point for the whole region.

Giap Nguyen is a Hanoi-based freelance journalist. He holds a master’s degree in international journalism at City University, University of London and has bylines in the Associated Press, Guardian, Telegraph, Vox among others.

This feature is part of a series of articles on the energy transition in Southeast Asia supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (SEA) and Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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