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The tricky business of recycling dead solar cells in Vietnam

Saturday, November 21, 2020, 09:48 GMT+7
The tricky business of recycling dead solar cells in Vietnam
Two people carry a solar panel atop a building in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ngoc Hien / Tuoi Tre

Vietnam’s domestic solar energy sector is thriving thanks to the country’s many solar farms which generate thousands of megawatts of energy.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, and energy sector professionals are still working out how to responsibly recycle defunct solar power cells.

Nguyen Thi Hoa, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 7, has installed solar panels on her roof for over a year.

According to Hoa, the new six-kilowatt-peak (kWp) system has shaved a substantial amount of money from the family’s electricity bill. 

The company that installed the panels told her that the system would last for 20 years.  

Afterward, no one knows what will happen to the used panels.

The director of a solar energy firm told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that residents should consider installing solar energy systems as soon as possible in order to benefit from favorable government policies that favor clean energy.

His firm has installed hundreds of solar panels with a combined capacityof dozens of megawatts (MW).

To put things in perspective, it requires about 2,500 standard 400W solar panels to produce 1 MW.

But the director seemed to have spared no thought on what will happen to used and damaged panels.

Trung Nam Group, another local solar energy company, claimed that it handles discarded panels from its projects in accordance with environmental protection standards, yet no official standards for recycling solar items exist in Vietnam.

Recycling capability

Nguyen Thuy Ngan, brand manager of solar energy firm SolarBK, told Tuoi Tre that 90 percent of solar panel constituents are recyclable and recycling technology does exist, but it is only employed by a few companies in Vietnam, including SolarBK.

According to Ngan, companies are reluctant to build solar panel recycling facilities in Vietnam as the industry is still in its infancy and the problem of dealing with defunct solar panels is not expected for another 20 years.

In the meantime, SolarBK claims responsibility to recycle dead solar panels in its written contracts with clients.

The firm is currently open to receiving broken panels and reusing them as construction materials.

Truong Cong Vu, chief manager of Global Energy, a key player in the solar energy market in southern Vietnam, said most manufacturers take no responsibility for recalling solar panels, but many parts from the panels, including the tempered glass, aluminum edges, and plastic pieces can be recycled in Vietnam.

As the solar energy market grows, Vu expressed his expectations to see more and more support services added to the market, in the same way solar panel cleaning services and cleaning robots were introduced a few years ago.

“Solar panels are only concentrated in a few 'farm' areas," Vu explained.

"Sunlight in these areas does not get absorbed into the ground but rather reflects back to the atmosphere, enkindling a local greenhouse effect.

"Other than that, these panels do not have significant impacts on the environment.”

Take-back obligation

The recycling of dead solar panels is a cumbersome business as they are obviously not biodegradable and store several heavy metals that can potentially harm the environment, according to Prof. Dr. Dang Thi Kim Chi from the Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment.

Although it is true that most large-scale solar energy projects are relatively new, not all solar panels can last for 15-20 years.

Some will break sooner than others, which prompts the need for an up-and-running recycling procedure.

Currently, there are no comprehensive guidelines or regulation frameworks available for the recycling of solar panels.

For that reason, Chi advised the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment as well as the Ministry of Industry and Trade to launch researches and devise firm regulations as soon as possible.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Vo Viet Cuong from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology and Education pointed out that current technology is only capable of recycling 96-98 percent of each solar cell.

Although the manufacturing of solar panels does generate emissions, the panels themselves do not emit any fumes or pose adverse health risks during usage.

From a government administration standpoint, Cuong said the manufacturers’ obligation to call back and recycle their expired products should be written into law, instead of putting the burden on clients.

A supplier’s responsibility to recall dead solar panels is required by law in other developed countries, namely the United States, he added.

Regulations in development

A leader of the Vietnam Environment Administration (VEA) under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment pointed to several adverse environmental impacts of solar energy farms, which include land encroachment, heat pollution, and dangers to humans.

According to the agency, the manufacturing of solar cells involves the use of cadmium and silicon.

However, unlike battery, solar cells are not classified as toxic waste due to their inability to store electricity.

The VEA official underlined an article in the newly-passed Law on Environmental Protection, which requires manufacturers and importers of certain products to take recycling responsibility in accordance with official guidelines.

The law also allows manufacturers and importers of such products to choose between preparing their own recycling process and donating to the Vietnam Environmental Protection Fund which can then take up the recycling work.

The official also stated that the ministry is petitioning for solar cells to be added to the list of products with recycling obligations.

Until then, it will guide the recycling of solar panels based on existing laws on waste management.

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Xuan Tung - Ngoc Hien - Xuan Long / Tuoi Tre News

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