How to manage India’s solar PV waste problem?

Context – In the last few years, there has been a concerted push from policymakers in India to transition to a circular economy and to, among other things, enable effective waste management. But waste management in the solar photovoltaic (PV) sector still lacks clear directives.

What is PV waste?

  • It is the electronic waste (e-waste) generated by discarded solar panels and Photo-voltaic (PV) devices.
  • Photovoltaic (PV) devices contain semiconducting materials that convert sunlight into electrical energy. 
  • A single PV device is known as a cell, and these cells are connected together in chains to form larger units known as modules or panels. 
  • Although up to 90% of the components are recyclable, many PV modules contain heavy metals such as cadmium, copper, lead, antimony or selenium, and when they are taken out of service or broken, they may be classified as hazardous waste.

While photovoltaics generate only about 3 percent of global electricity, they consume 40 percent of the world’s tellurium, 15 percent of the world’s silver, a substantial chunk of semiconductor-grade quartz and lesser amounts of indium, zinc, tin and gallium. A report, prepared jointly by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS) highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock an estimated stock of 78 million tonnes of raw materials and other valuable components globally by 2050. If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.

Present status of Solar PV waste in India

  • According to a report prepared by the National Solar Energy Federation of India, India could generate over 34,600 tonnes of cumulative solar waste in India by 2030. 
  • India currently considers solar waste a part of electronic waste and does not account for it separately. Moreover, there is no commercial raw material recovery facility for solar e-waste operational in India.
  • A committee had been constituted under the chairmanship of the Ministry’s Secretary to propose an action plan to evolve a “circular economy” in solar panel, through reuse/recycling of waste generated.
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Challenges in India

  • Informal handling – Only about 20% of the waste is recovered in general; the rest is treated informally. As a result, the waste often accumulates at landfills, which pollute the surroundings. Incinerating the encapsulant also releases sulphur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, and hydrogen cyanide into the atmosphere.
  • No segregation – PV waste is clubbed with e-waste in India generally. 
  • High cost of recycling – Recycling a solar panel cost between $20 and $30, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory; sending it to a landfill costs $1-2.
  • Lack of incentives – The market to repurpose or reuse recycled PV waste is minuscule in India due to a lack of suitable incentives and schemes in which businesses can invest.

What can we do about them?

  • Promote recycling – According to a 2021 report, approximately 50% of the total materials can be recovered. The domestic development of PV waste recycling technologies must be promoted through appropriate infrastructure facilities and adequate funding. New business models, incentives or issues of green certificates to be provided to encourage the recycling industry to participate more.
  • Environmental disposal and recycling of solar waste could be part of the power purchase agreement SECI / DISCOMS / government signs with project developers.
  • Dedicated Policy formulation – India should formulate and implement provisions specific to PV waste treatment within the ambit of the e-waste guidelines. EPR for the manufacturer and developers to take responsibility for end-of-life the solar panel. 
  • Ban on Landfills: Solar panel waste is harmful to the environment as it contains toxic metals and minerals that may seep in the ground.
  • Central insurance or a regulatory body should be set up to protect against financial losses incurred in waste collection and treatment. 
  • Research and Development: Innovation in design may have an impact on the type of waste they generate; technology advancements will be significant in reducing the impact of renewable energy waste. New panels, for example, use less silicon and produce less waste during the manufacturing process.
  • Awareness drives – Pan India sensitisation drives and awareness programmes on PV waste management will be beneficial.

Global best practices

Europe – EU imposes responsibility for the disposal of waste on the manufacturers or distributors who introduce or install such equipment for the first time.UK – PV producers will need to register and submit data related to products used for the residential solar market (B2C) and non-residential market.

Australia – announced a $2 million grant as part of the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund to develop and implement an industry-led product stewardship scheme for PV systems.

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