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The Dilemma of India’s Solar Waste – EQ

The Dilemma of India’s Solar Waste – EQ


In Short – India grapples with the dilemma of solar waste management as the renewable energy sector expands. With the proliferation of solar installations, there’s a pressing need to address the end-of-life management of solar panels and related components. Developing effective recycling infrastructure and implementing sustainable disposal practices are crucial to mitigate environmental risks and maximize resource efficiency. Balancing the growth of solar energy with responsible waste management presents a complex but imperative challenge for India’s sustainable development journey.

In Details – The India government has been steadfast in amplifying investments in renewable energy Imagine it’s the year 2047. India is celebrating its centennial of independence in a country transformed by renewable energy. Old and new cities are adorned by photovoltaic panels and villages are dotted with solar farms. However, the very source of India’s energy independence has given rise to a new challenge – the disposal and recycling of solar waste.

This fiction could soon be a reality. The India government has been steadfast in amplifying investments in renewable energy. The country’s solar capacity is set to increase by four times from 66 GW in 2023 to about 292 GW in 2030. This aligns with India’s COP26 commitment to achieving 500 GW of non-fossil-fuel based energy by 2030. However, this expansion has an unintended consequence of increasing the volume of solar waste. India is projected to generate 600 kilotonnes of solar waste. The management of this waste is crucial for environmental, economic, and social reasons. The Government introduced the e-waste (management) rules 2022 that have incorporated the management of solar PV modules, panels and cells that mandate the manufacturers and producers to ensure proper disposal and recycling. However, the infrastructure of recycling is yet to catch up with the stringent nature of these regulations.

There are several challenges to scale this mountain of solar waste. First and perhaps the biggest is the economic value of recovering materials from solar panels is limited, and this discourages investment in recycling efforts. About 60% of the total value from recycling is concentrated within just 3% of the weight of the solar panels. This economic imbalance doesn’t enable the development of a viable solar waste recycling industry. Second, the informal sector with their scrap trading often handles waste in an unscientific manner with risk of leaching substances in solar panels into land and soil.

In Tamil Nadu, along with a solar manufacturing plant we have India’s first plant for PV module recycling too. Strategic investments should be made in recycling as five states – Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh produce 67% of all of India’s solar waste. Such centralised recycling plants can be crucial first steps towards establishing a robust recycling infrastructure. Further we need to invest in R&D for efficient recycling methods that recover both bulk and high-value components from solar waste. This includes developing new technologies for dismantling, delamination, and metal recovery. Along with e-waste regulations, introducing incentives like green certificates can provide a level-playing field and encourage recycling and mineral recovery by the industry. Managing solar waste is crucial not just from an environmental standpoint but also for resource management and socio-economic growth. Adopting a circular economy approach can ensure that resources are kept in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them while in use, and then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life.

Design can play a big part in reducing solar waste. Designing solar panels to last longer and withstand harsh weather conditions can significantly reduce waste. Designing solar panels that are easier to repair can significantly extend their lifespan and reduce the number that end up as waste. Even the development of a consistent, industry-wide standard for manufacturing, tracking, and repairing solar PV modules will ensure they last as expected, reducing waste. The solar industry can reduce a huge amount of waste with these initiatives and ensure that the excellent environmental benefits of solar energy are fully realized. The Indian government’s investment in renewable energy is a step in the right direction. However, to ensure that this path remains sustainable, it is crucial that policies need to be re-evaluated to strike a balance between stringent regulations and the practicalities of recycling infrastructure development.

Anand Gupta Editor - EQ Int'l Media Network