Tackling India’s solar waste challenge

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The volume of solar module waste in India will rise to 1.8 million tons by 2050 and the nation has neither policy guidelines nor the operational infrastructure required to ensure recycling, according to a recent report by consultancy Bridge To India.

The fact ‘solar waste’ still has no definition in India, and is being dumped as general waste, compounds the problem.

Against that backdrop, a solar waste management seminar organized by Bridge To India in New Delhi touched upon PV waste management in India.

A panel of experts from the National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE), Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), Solar Energy Corporation of India and industry figures discussed a definition of solar waste as well as commercial recycling; regulatory frameworks and enforcement; and the use of sustainable materials.

Defining waste

In India, all the PV waste is likely being dumped in landfills in an unregulated manner as there is no recycling facility. Even conventional recycling facilities to detach glass and aluminium frame from the modules are largely absent in India.

Stressing the need to categorize solar waste, NISE director-general Arun K. Tripathi said: “Solar panels waste is a very undefined system. It cannot be called e-waste. So far it’s a general system that can be dumped like any other waste. Since it contains hazardous material, it’s important to first decide the category: general, e-waste or hazardous. Once this is done we can go to the environment ministry or the regulating agencies for the waste management.

“According to some reports, PV panels create 300 times more waste per kilowatt-hour than any nuclear power plant. So, while we call solar … very clean, we also need to look at it in totality. How much waste it leaves behind is something we also need to look at.

“[The] MNRE is already working on this. Some R&D projects are under consideration. Somebody has suggested this waste … be [classified] under [the] hazardous waste category,” shared Tripathi while adding that, perhaps, not all waste should be taken as hazardous.

Recyclability and commercial application

Tripathi said there are many reusable and recyclable materials in PV installations, including glass, batteries, aluminum frames, polymer backsheets, junction boxes and steel structures.

“But in a PV panel, [the] solar cell part needs to be segregated and exposed to chemicals to make it recyclable for [the] extraction of silicon,” said the head of NISE. “Studies need to be carried out on this. Some companies have done it but only at [an] experimental stage. [The] time has come that in another 4-5 years we can establish a system for proper waste management of [the] solar panel itself.”

NISE, added Tripathi, is working with a research institute on recycling solar glass and with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore on recycling solar cells. The director-general said there is the possibility of creating cells out of such waste material, albeit with a lower efficiency. “The process needs to be established commercially,” he added.

Enabling regulatory control

MNRE director Ruchin Gupta said the ministry is aware today’s new capacity is tomorrow’s waste.

“There are two broad dimensions to PV waste management,” he told the seminar, “one: who is to manage this? And second, how to manage it. As regards the first part, there is a concept called extended producer responsibility (EPR) wherein the manufacturer is made responsible for [the] collection and processing at end-of-life of the product. Countries like Switzerland have further strengthened it by making the organization responsible for such an act, which makes … enforcement much easier.

Gupta added: “In [an] Indian context, the solar industry is … 85-90% … import based. So with manufacturers sitting outside the regulatory framework of the government of India, so far the government has been wondering how to really enforce certain obligations, statutory regulations and this concept of EPR.

“Keeping these limitations in mind, the [MNRE] has come out with an approved list of models and manufacturers – [the] ALMM. The precise idea behind this model is to go beyond quality and to ensure reliability. For us reliability is also to ensure that whatever is produced is also recycled in [an] ecologically sustainable manner. So the idea behind the ALMM order is to have some kind of control, some kind of regulatory framework over the manufacturers.

Enforcement

“The order mandates that only the manufacturers and their respective [listed] models … after a due process, are allowed for projects that have anything to do with the government, essentially covering 95% of solar installations in India. So 95% of the projects that we install post-March 2020 will have to have installations from manufacturers enlisted by the government of India through [the] MNRE. This way the MNRE has ensured that there is a regulatory framework on the manufacturers and tomorrow the various contractual, statutory or socioecological obligations can be enforced.

“Coming to the second dimension, that is how to manage solar e-waste, the role of … industry, academia and research institutes like NISE – and facilitators like Bridge To India – comes into play, as the ministry would like to enforce the solution in a democratic manner. It doesn’t want monopolies to be created, which impacts competition. In [the] pre-production stage, the need is to come out with materials that are non-hazardous or less hazardous.

“In [the] post-production stage, so far waste collection in India is [a disorganized] sector, where the processes are often not very sustainable, as whatever is not retrievable is dumped. That’s the area where a viable business model has to come in from the industry – providing some solution to the government and the ministry so that regulations can also be enforced for waste management after the product’s end-of-life.”

On the matter of introducing more sustainable materials, Gupta added: “We realize that quality standards or statutory regulations so far don’t permit such change. For instance, BIS [Bureau of Indian Standards] standards talk about certain tests and certain performance which may be different with [the] use of new materials. So in the beginning we would not like to put so many conditions and strangulate the ecosystem.”

Key takeaways

The very first step in the direction of addressing the issue of solar waste management has been taken, as MNRE, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the entire industry acknowledges this as a problem of today and is keen to work together to find a  plausible solutions to the same–according to Surbhi Singhvi, manager-consulting at Bridge To India.

Highlighting solar waste management as the collective responsibility, Surbhi said: “The onus of devising a strategy for solar waste management lies collectively on the relevant ministries, tendering authorities, equipment manufacturers as well as other industry stakeholders. MNRE and MOEFCC need to work in tandem to formulate a regulation on appropriate solar waste management procedure; tendering authorities could include technical specifications with regards to proper solar waste management, equipment manufacturers should use sustainable materials in manufacturing to reduce the problem of waste management, and developers and consumers could get into mutual agreements to share the burden of waste management.”

“SECI already includes the cost of dismantling as a part of the total project cost in case of bids for floating solar power plants. The same can be done for ground-mounted plants as well with the consent of MNRE.”