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Waste Management: Will Solar Photovoltaics Be the Next Plastic?

Waste Management: Will Solar Photovoltaics Be the Next Plastic?

Photo: Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash

Towards meeting the outcomes of the Paris Agreement, India has committed to getting 40% of its electricity through renewable sources by 2030. The government has made great strides to achieve this target well before the stipulated time, as the country’s installed renewable energy installed capacity crossed the 40% mark in November 2021 itself.

Solar energy leads India’s energy transition, with a whopping contribution of 100 GW. As of November 30, 2021, India ranked sixth worldwide in installed solar energy capacity (48.56 GW).

Indeed, the solar photovoltaics sector in India has been growing with rapidly falling tariffs, subsidies from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), 100% FDI through the automatic route, and performance-linked incentives for high-efficiency photovoltaic modules manufacturing.

The flip side

The government has promoted solar energy as the key to India’s low-carbon energy transition. But the rapid diffusion of solar photovoltaic technology has come the unregulated end-of-life management and disposal of photovoltaic waste.

Solar photovoltaic systems generate waste of two forms: primary and secondary. Primary waste comprises waste generated directly from solar panels before and at the end of life. Secondary waste constitutes materials generated during the fabrication and the disposal of balance systems like inverters, wires and mounting structures.

Although the estimated lifespan of solar panels is 20-25 years, they are often disposed of well before this time thanks to damages during transportation, installation, soiling, faulty manufacturing, poor maintenance and harsh weather. In an ongoing study in Bengaluru, suppliers reported that consumers often exchange their photovoltaic rooftop installations in 2-3 years and upgrade to more efficient panels. This adds to the issues surrounding waste management and disposal.

Given India’s considerable solar energy target, studies have indicated that the volume of solar photovoltaic waste is projected to reach 200,000 tonnes a year by 2030 and grow almost 10x to 1.8 million tonnes by 2050. These are big numbers, and anticipate a considerable challenge to India’s sustainable energy transition.

Also read: For Developing Countries, More Solar Power – and More Lead Contamination

India under-prepared

In addition, the secondary waste includes components that have a lifespan of 3-10 years and will contribute to an additional high-volume stream of toxic substances (including heavy metals like cadmium and antimony) and e-waste further down the line, and which pose significant threats to human and environmental health. India appears to be less than prepared to deal with these potential outcomes.

The country doesn’t have any specific regulations to dispose and recycle solar photovoltaic waste. The only reference to solar waste is in the MNRE guidelines. The ministry directed the Central Pollution Control Board to amend the 2016 E-waste Rules to include antimony in the ‘hazardous substances’ category (rule 16), with indirect consequences for the management of solar modules containing antimony.

MNRE has also accepted that India currently doesn’t have facilities to recycle solar panels containing antimony, but has shifted the onus to industry actors, once an adequate amount of photovoltaic waste becomes available to recycle.

But curiously, the 2016 E-waste Rules don’t consider solar modules themselves to be e-waste, leaving the disposal and management of end-of-life solar technologies in a limbo.

According to Central Pollution Control Board data, the e-waste recycling capacity available with registered recyclers and dismantlers in India can handle only 22% percent of the waste produced (i.e. 0.4 million tonnes a year). And between 2015 and 2017, only 4% of the total e-waste generated was reportedly sent to registered dismantling facilities.

If this gap between waste production and handling persists, India’s energy transition story could soon turn into an environmental nightmare.

To avoid this, India needs a multifaceted approach, focusing on stakeholder engagement and technology development. It is imperative that we have a specific and comprehensive regulatory ecosystem that restricts the accumulation of solar waste without slowing the transition to renewable sources. We must also ban photovoltaic waste from reaching landfills and craft legislation for ‘extended producer responsibility’ to hold industry actors responsible. We can borrow from successful efforts on this front in Europe and China.

Industry intervention like in the UK, EU and Australia could also make for a successful recycling model. Given the large size of the MSME and informal sector in India, they can offer transport, module-handling, recycling and decommissioning services at the end-of-life stage. This would also generate employment opportunities. With the government’s focus on increasing solar-cell and module manufacturing capacity in India, critical elements such as silicon, lithium and germanium can be salvaged from recycled panels, and help offset any impending resource crunch in the photovoltaic manufacturing segment.

Parallelly, investment in R&D to develop homegrown solar waste recycling technologies and incentivisation of the allied infrastructure is required. The stakes are high, and if concrete steps aren’t taken soon, India will have a tenacious challenge comparable to its plastic-waste management problem.

Stuti Haldar is a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru. She works on issues of energy transitions and sustainability-driven innovations.

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