Environment & Biodiversity

How should India deal with its solar PV waste problem?

India’s solar photovoltaic (PV) industry is rapidly expanding, but effective waste management strategies for this field are still lacking. This article investigates the issues and gaps in solar PV waste handling in India.

Solar PV Waste in India

  • India has the world’s fourth-highest solar PV deployment, with roughly 62 GW installed by November 2022.
  • According to a 2016 International Renewable Energy Agency report, India could produce 50,000-3,25,000 tonnes of PV waste by 2030, and over four million tonnes by 2050.
  • The majority of solar PV installations in India use crystalline silicon (c-Si) technology, which comprises primarily of a glass sheet, an aluminium frame, an encapsulant, a backsheet, copper wires, and silicon wafers.
  • A standard PV panel is composed of 93% c-Si modules and 7% cadmium telluride thin-film modules.

The dangers of PV discharge

Some of the risks associated with solar PV waste include:

  • Pollution of the environment: The accumulation of solar PV waste in landfills can cause pollution of the environment because the waste includes hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals. The encapsulate is also incinerated, which emits sulphur dioxide, hydrogen fluoride, and hydrogen cyanide into the environment.
  • Health risks: Improper handling and disposal of solar PV waste can pose health risks to employees and residents living nearby. The waste’s toxic chemicals can cause respiratory difficulties, skin irritation, and other health problems.

Economy behind PV waste

  • Financial losses: Improper management of solar PV waste can result in financial losses for waste collection and treatment firms. In India, there is a limited market for repurposing or reusing recycled PV waste due to a lack of suitable incentives and schemes in which companies can engage.
  • Resource depletion: When solar PV waste is disposed of, precious resources such as silicon, silver, and other critical materials are lost, potentially leading to resource depletion.

PV Waste Recovery and Recycling

  • When PV panels reach the end of their useful life, some of the frame is extracted and sold as scrap; junctions and cables are recycled in accordance with e-waste standards; the glass laminate is partially recycled, and the remainder is discarded as general refuse.
  • By burning the module in cement kilns, silicon and silver can be extracted.
  • According to a report from 2021, roughly 50% of total materials can be recovered.

India’s Unique Challenges

  • India confronts difficulties in collecting, storing, recycling, and repurposing PV waste.
  • In general, only about 20% of waste is recovered, and the remainder is handled informally, resulting in pollution of the environment.

Gaps in PV Waste Management-

  • Generalized as e-waste: Combining PV waste with other e-waste may cause confusion, so special provisions for PV waste treatment within the scope of e-waste guidelines are required.
  • PV waste is classified as hazardous waste in India, and there is a need for pan-India sensitization campaigns and PV waste management awareness activities.

Why is it necessary for India to move now?

  • Given the rate at which these panels are being installed throughout the nation, India is expected to generate massive amounts of waste over the next 20 years.
  • By 2050, India is anticipated to be one of the top five photovoltaic waste producers in the world.
  • As a result, India must implement clear policy directives, well-established recycling strategies, and increased collaboration to avoid being caught off guard by a new issue in the future.

Key recommendations

Policymakers should:

  • Enact a prohibition on the dumping of waste modules in landfills by various organisations.
  • Create a waste control regulation for PV modules.
  • Introduce incentives such as green certificates to level the playing field and promote business recycling and mineral recovery.

Industries should:

  • Improve the architecture of PV modules to reduce waste at the disposal stage. This can include using less toxic minerals in design or using a ‘design to disassemble’ strategy.
  • Invest in the reuse of subpar components to postpone waste generation.
  • Collaborate with research institutes to create recycling methods and provide funding for pilot demonstrations.
  • Create novel business models for managing and financing waste disposal.

Way forward

  • India must prioritise local R&D efforts because relying on a single module type will deplete certain natural resources unevenly.
  • It is essential to increase recycling capacity and recover critical materials.
  • This can be accomplished by developing specific provisions for PV waste treatment, conducting pan-India sensitization drives and awareness campaigns, promoting domestic R&D efforts, and providing sufficient infrastructure facilities and funding.
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