What after 25 years?
Solar energy is one of the encouraging trends in the global efforts on mitigating climate change. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global solar photovoltaic installed capacity is set to increase beyond 1,600 Gigawatts (GW) by 2030. India, too, has a lofty target to install 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022, while the current numbers read 20 GW. The volume of solar module waste in India will rise to 1.8 million tons by 2050, and it has neither policy guidelines nor the operational infrastructure required to ensure its recycling (Bridge To India, 2019).
A solar panel has a lifespan of 20-25 years, and 90 per cent production capability after 10 years; and 85 per cent after 25 years. Although the theoretical lifespan of the panels is 25-30 years, multiple factors contribute to their early retirement. These include improper installation, manufacturing defects, inadequate maintenance, soiling, and unfavourable climatic conditions (Read on: Get the most out of your solar power system: homeowners, gated communities, educational institutions). So what happens to this waste and how should it be discarded?
Defining ‘Solar Waste‘
In India, the term ‘Solar Waste‘ is yet to find a definition. PV module recycling is still at a nascent stage globally and is being thrown away as general waste or e-waste. The Indian e-waste rules of 2016 do not include PV modules. As a result, the retired panels are dealt with by the unorganised sector, which is associated with lower recovery rates and a higher risk of pollution.
Recycling solar panels is a complex task because they contain different types of materials. They are made up of glass, metals, silicon, and polymers. They carry potentially hazardous heavy metals, and their responsible recycling becomes crucial. Else, they could leach into the environment. Hence it is necessary to categorise PV module waste into general, e-waste, and hazardous.
Undamaged solar cells can often be recovered and reused in new products with lower efficiency. Solar panels also contain rare elements, such as Gallium and Indium, that are slowly depleting from their finite resource pool. Research institutes like the National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE) are working on ways to produce solar panels with non-hazardous materials, which will make the recycling process easy. In the next 4-5 years, we must establish a system for proper waste management of solar panels.
Creating a framework for PV recycling
The solar industry is primarily import based. So, with manufacturers sitting outside the regulatory framework of the Indian government, enforcing certain obligations, statutory regulations and EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) becomes a challenge.
The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) take the first step in addressing the issue. MNRE has come out with an approved list of models and manufacturers – ALMM. The precise idea behind this model is to go beyond quality and to ensure reliability. Besides, it also assures the recycling of PV modules in an ecologically sustainable manner. The ALMM order enables control over and establishes a regulatory framework for the PV module manufacturers.
The ALMM order mandates that only the listed manufacturers would be allowed for projects that have anything to do with the government. As a result, 95% of the projects post-March 2020 will have panels 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. Now various contractual, statutory or socio-ecological obligations can be enforced.
To establish a formal recycling ecosystem with a viable financial model, it may help to introduce a producer-financed compliance fee. The model will impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) on manufacturers, akin to e-waste like mobile phones, laptops, and more.
Why worry now?
A majority of the solar panels disposed of annually are either damaged or defective. Since solar is a relatively young industry, the annual decommission rate of solar power systems is still low. Most of the systems installed in the 1980s are still churning out an acceptable amount of power. However, the day will come, when a robust recycling infrastructure will be needed as panels are piling up. Apart from, Poseidon Solar Services, a Tamil Nadu-based company there are currently not many companies to recycle solar photovoltaics (PV) cells in India.
Why should we bother now when the potential problems are years away?
Considering the case of electronic waste, with the explosive growth in the adoption of consumer electronics over the last two decades, India is one country most affected by e-waste. But the Indian government started to address the crisis only recently.
Considering waste management and recycling systems take a long time to develop, India must start planning now to avoid a similar situation with solar PV. The technology for recycling solar panels may be evolving, but India without a doubt needs to take stock of the impending crisis of solar waste management.
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