Greater adoption calls for better management and recycling of the constituents of photovoltaic modules
The rising penetration of solar waste in India is a matter that deserves immediate attention. While solar energy generates a lot of green energy, the components used for it are not biodegradable. In addition to alleviating the extensive environmental damage caused by solar, a focus on solar module recycling will also help the country in recovery of raw materials. It is imperative for the government to introduce a holistic policy framework for handling the waste from solar technology, highlighting the responsibility of different stakeholders, and creating an enabling environment to implement the same.
India is yet to develop a dedicated solar PV waste management and recycling policy. While there are comprehensive Industrial Solid Waste Rules in place in India, these do not include solar PV within their scope. The "E-waste (Management) Rules" and "Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules" deal with disposal of various kinds of e-waste, but do not explicitly mention disposal of solar PV panels.
Several countries are already working on addressing the impending waste disposal problem. Some noteworthy mentions are the European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, the U.S. module manufacturer First Solar, and pilot projects by Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).
On similar lines as the EU's WEEE Directive, India can revise its existing electronic waste management framework to include PV modules and batteries. The revised regulation, an expansion of the extended producer responsibility (EPR), should set the targets for collection and recovery efficiency of waste. Developers should report on their sales, collect damaged or discarded waste and update the status of their targets.
There is a lot to learn from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in the United States and Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), which have taken a lead on clean energy waste collection and management. SEIA, as a not-for-profit trade association of the U.S. solar energy industry, has founded a corporate social responsibility committee to develop and review research in recycling technologies - introducing developers to recycling vendors and providing financing options for waste collection and management. Whereas in Japan, NEDO has been undertaking extensive research activities for PV recycling. In 2014, it developed an automated PV recycling technology that separates different types of panels (crystalline Si, thin-film) to recover valuable materials such as aluminum, Si, glass, and metal semiconductor.
A market-driven initiative is important for a thriving waste collection and recycling industry. Stakeholders forming a part of the Indian solar industry should take responsibility to invest in recycling technologies, finance routes, and feasibility examination by pilot projects. Since in the coming years quantum jump in manufacturing and deployment of solar panel is envisaged it is of critical importance that MNRE as a nodal Ministry in collaboration with TERI, other Solar associate industrial bodies and associations should collaborate to develop policies and guidelines including for reporting on the sale and damage of modules, investment in new recycling technologies and creation of financing schemes for solar waste management.
The end-of-life management is imperative for PV technologies to have sustainable clean energy solutions. As of February, 2020, India had over 39 GW of installed capacity.
In India, the current lifecycle of solar PV follows the traditional 'take-make-dispose' model. At the end of the lifecycle, the PV panels are generally destined for the landfill which could leach toxic chemicals into the soil and contaminate the water supplies. Heavy metals such as cadmium in CdTe (Cadmium Telluride) cells and the lead in crystalline silicone panels, could be the culprits.
Some studies have demonstrated that when thin film cells containing CdTe are exposed to water, the CdTe dissolves increasing the risk of leaching cadmium. Tests have also shown lead to leach from crystalline silicone panels. Once in soil and water, cadmium and lead can accumulate in the food chain.
A workshop in 1992 had pointed out that the PV industry should consider the Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing and also Design for the Environment concepts to minimize its environmental impact. But, India is dogged by the lack of guidelines to ensure better management of the end-of-life management of PV.
The recycling of the solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year life can unlock about 78 million tonnes of raw materials and other valuable components by 2050. If fully recycled, the material could be worth more than USD 15 billion, by 2050.
Circular economy model
Landfill disposal leads to the loss of rare earth metals like indium, gallium, germanium etc. and they need to be recovered and returned into the economy.
The PV recycling sector is relatively young and PV modules have a lifespan of 20-25 years. Waste treatment regulations need to be considered as the PV modules contain valuable elements like silver, silicon wafer, and indium. They also contain metals like copper, cadmium, and lead.
There have been efforts by regulators to mitigate the challenges in waste disposal. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, better known as the WEEE Directive, is the European Community's directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). This, together with the directive on 'Restriction on Hazardous Substance' or the RoHS Directive 2011/65/EU, became European Law in February 2003.
The WEEE Directive has had ripple effects. Any producer who wants to sell solar panels in the European Union needs to comply with WEEE Directive requirements, even if the producer is not European and the panels are not produced within. It holds the producer accountable for the waste at no cost to the consumer, thus following the 'producer plays principle'.
The Directive also increases transparency in respect to e-waste by mandating reporting requirements and informational requirements on producers. It has also laid the base for a standardized financial mechanism for the effective 'end of life' management of PV panels.
Some studies have claimed that policies with economic benefits would be needed to encourage the PV industry to shift to sustainable strategies. Every country has adopted a different policy and regulatory reforms for the effective management of PV waste.
India has to work on these lines to ensure that we don't lag, but be in the forefront in the global push towards green energy to stick with the Paris Agreement on emission goals.