India faces stiff challenge with management of 187,200 tonnes of solar PV waste

The government should allocate dedicated funding for solar panel and cell recycling under the Atmanirbhar initiative

By Binit Das
Published: Wednesday 23 August 2023
India will have to handle around 187,200 tonnes of solar photovoltaic waste by 2035. Photo: iStock

India’s pursuit of sustainable energy confronts a forthcoming obstacle in effectively managing 187,200 tonnes of solar photovoltaic waste by 2035. This estimation results from the cumulative installation of solar PV systems until 2015, factoring in the 20-year lifespan of PV modules. 

This could significantly increase when factoring in damages that occur during the manufacturing and transportation of the panels.

The installation of photovoltaic panels, crucial for renewable energy generation, brings with it potential vulnerabilities, both during installation and due to external factors. Rain exposure to damaged modules can lead to leaching of toxic chemicals into aquatic and terrestrial environments, with metals like lead, cadmium, tellurium, chromium, aluminium, zinc, copper and silver leaching.

Assessing metal leaching potential from discarded solar panels is vital to design end-of-life strategies and mitigate associated environmental issues.

Harmful metals pose environmental threats when leaching into soil and groundwater from discarded panels. Addressing these challenges in recycling end-of-life solar panels is imperative as the use of PV modules expands.

The Indian solar PV waste management sector is confronted with several key challenges, both present and potential, as the issue of solar PV waste continues to expand. These challenges encompass:

Infrastructure deficiency: The sector faces a significant lack of infrastructure dedicated to the recycling and recovery of materials from solar panels. The absence of a suitable commercial institution to oversee this process is a notable concern.

Informal sector: The waste generated is left out in barren lands in an unscientific manner, and the sector is left only in the hands of the informal sector engaged in scrap trading. This informal approach signifies the absence of a proper framework and institution to effectively manage the recycling and material recovery from solar panels. Consequently, the waste is inadequately handled, leading to environmental degradation through the leaching of toxic substances into the land and soil, with detrimental effects on both the environment and human health.

Key challenges in recycling solar panels

Mixed and difficult-to-separate materials: Solar panel materials are intricately mixed, posing challenges in efficient component separation during recycling.

Low material value: Recovering materials from the solar panels holds limited economic value, hindering cost recovery in recycling efforts. Approximately 60 per cent of the total value is concentrated within a mere 3 per cent of the weight of the solar panels.

High processing costs: The substantial costs associated with processing further strain recycling economics, demanding strategies to enhance efficiency and reduce expenses.

Approaches to overcome challenges

Technological advancements: Developing cost-effective technologies for mechanical and thermal recycling processes can enhance material recovery while reducing costs.

Collaborative action: Stakeholders collaboration, involving government authorities, manufacturers and recyclers, can foster recycling strategies that align with environmental and economic goals.

Regulations and sustainability

The European Community Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) has set a precedent, emphasising resource efficiency and design-for-recycling for new panels. While specific recycling targets for waste PV panels are lacking, efficient recycling processes can recover valuable materials like silicon, glass and silver.

Strategies encompassing extended producer responsibility, advance-recycling fees and incentives can bolster effective solar panel waste management. Additionally, stimulating research, fostering technical expertise and forming industrial clusters can promote innovation and spillover effects across the energy and waste sectors.

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, issued the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022 on November 2, 2022 that superseded the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016. Their purpose is to ensure environmentally responsible handling of e-waste originating from electrical and electronic equipment, including solar photovoltaic (PV) modules, panels or cells.

According to these regulations, manufacturers and producers of solar PV modules, panels, or cells are required to obtain registration, maintain inventory of these products, store waste generated from them until 2034-35 in accordance with the stipulated guidelines, submit annual returns, adhere to standard operating procedures (SOP) and process non-solar PV waste following relevant waste management regulations. Additionally, recyclers of solar PV modules, panels or cells are obligated to recover materials as specified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Under these rules, CPCB is tasked with formulating and issuing guidelines and SOPs for the collection, storage, transportation, segregation, refurbishment, dismantling, recycling and disposal of e-waste, including waste from solar PV modules, panels or cells.

There are no immediate plans to establish a distinct regulatory body beyond the existing framework under the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022 to mitigate financial losses incurred during waste collection and treatment.

The move by the government was well-received by module manufacturers, who expressed their support. However, there is a need for clearer regulations. Several areas remain uncertain, such as determining the lifespan of solar panels, defining the conversion factor for assessing extended producer responsibility (EPR) certificates, understanding the benefits of EPR certificates including their potential monetary value, identifying suitable storage locations for panels until 2034-35 as required, considering incentives for manufacturers embracing recycling, and addressing the question of whether insurance companies will hold manufacturers liable in case of failures during the insurance period.

Given the absence of authorised recyclers, the government could allocate dedicated funding for solar panel and cell recycling under the Atmanirbhar initiative. This step could encourage entrepreneurs and start-ups to develop domestic solutions and contribute to the growth of the recycling sector.

The Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) should facilitate and explore recycling methods and the recovery of vital materials in the context of solar PV systems through “Renewable Energy Research and Technology Development Programme” in collaboration with research institutions and industry.

In the pursuit of sustainable energy, addressing PV waste’s challenges remains pivotal. This underscores the necessity for a comprehensive strategy that involves increased awareness, improved recycling infrastructure, regulatory structures, incentives for innovation and the fostering of collective efforts to ensure an economically feasible and ecologically responsible approach.

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