Solar e-waste management and equipment recycling

It’s one of the cleanest forms of energy and for countries like India, it is the most abundant too. Even as the sunrise sector continues to develop, it also appears to have raised concerns amongst industry experts, on the need to tackle the waste that it throws up, rather consistently, owing to its growth.

According to a recent study by clean energy consultancy Bridge to India, “While the India sector continues to grow robustly, from a mere 3GW in 2014 to over 28 GW by end of 2018, there is still no clarity on solar waste management and equipment recycling in the country. We estimate that solar module waste alone would grow to 1.8 million tonnes by 2050, equivalent to the annual e-waste volume generated at present.”

India will produce over 78 million tonnes of solar e-waste by 2050 and the PV waste will probably rise to 50,000-320,000 metric tonne by 2030 as a result of country’s solar targets. a report from International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency stated.

Surbhi Singhvi, Manager/consulting, Bridge to India and one of the authors of the report Managing India’s PV module waste, explains that waste is generated through two sources and one of them is early retirement. “There have been various reports on how installations in India have been reported to be of poor quality. Generally, a module is supposed to have a 25 to 30-year life span, but if the quality is poor, then the waste would come out sooner than expected.”

The other, she adds, is end of life, which happens after 25 to 30 years. “So, the waste problem is going to get bigger. The main reason why we did this report now is because we feel that action is strongly needed, and we need to make someone responsible for this waste. If we act on this after 30 years, no one is going to take responsibility.”

Citing the instance of e-waste in India, she states that despite a regulation in place for almost 8 years, the country still does not have adequate facilities to treat e-waste.
“Most bidding documents place responsibility for handling and disposing of PV waste on developers, as per India’s E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011”, Bridge to India said in its report.

MNRE initiates measures

However, a beginning appears to have been made to tackle the issue.

On January 4, 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to prepare a policy for the management of antimony present in solar glass panels. Antimony Containing Solar Panel Glass (ACSPG) is used globally to improve the stability of the solar performance of the glass upon exposure to ultraviolet radiation and sunlight. Consequently, the MNRE proposed making it mandatory for solar power developers to follow glass recycling procedure for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels under a new framework.

“Producers may be made responsible for ensuring recycling of end-of-life glass panels as part of their extended responsibility as in the case of e-waste which covers used lead-acid batteries, packaging material, etc,” the Ministry said in a concept note. Power generators will have to ensure environmentally-sound handling of used solar panel waste, it further added.

On the use of antimony, the note states that generators might set up facilities for safe dismantling of used solar panels or should tie-up with an authorised dismantling facility.

“The recycling process of a tonne of PV panels is likely to produce 686 kilogram (kg) of clean glass and 14 Kg of contaminated glass. The recycled glass can be used to produce new panels with antimony containing glass. However, in case recycling facilities are not available, the industry should look at the option of disposal in secured landfills or their safe storage”, the note mentions.

The MNRE policy is a very positive development for the industry, believes Surbhi. The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is the one that makes regulation on e-waste. PV waste must be included in e-waste regulation and for this, both the MNRE and MoEFCC will have to work together to ensure this happens.

“A lot is left beyond this step and harmful solar modules that need to be taken care of. Until now, the progress has been slow, but it is developments like these that give us hope—-that probably MNRE has started walking on this path,” she adds.

Additionally, National Thermal Power Corporation and Solar Energy Corporation of India based solar project tenders come with a solar waste responsibility clause.

EU shows the way

In most countries, PV panels fall under the classification of “general waste” but the European Union (EU) was the first to adopt PV-specific waste regulations, which include PV-specific collection, recovery, and recycling targets. EU’s directive requires all panel producers that supply PV panels to the EU market (wherever they may be based) to finance the costs of collecting and recycling end-of-life PV panels put on the market in Europe.

Furthermore, the EU has its Eco-Design Directive 2009, a policy instrument to reduce the environmental impact of energy-related products throughout their life cycle, Bridge to India stated.

Recycling as an option

A report released on June 20, 2016, in Munich Germany, by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA-PVPS), End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, is the first-ever projection of PV panel waste volumes to 2050 and highlights that recycling or repurposing solar PV panels at the end of their roughly 30-year lifetime can unlock a large stock of raw materials and other valuable components. It estimates that PV panel waste, comprised mostly of glass, could total 78 million tonnes globally by 2050. If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material could exceed $15 billion by 2050.

Waste management


“Global installed PV capacity reached 222 GW at the end of 2015 and is expected to further rise to 4,500 GW by 2050. With this tremendous capacity growth will come an increase in waste associated with the sector,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin. “This brings about new business opportunities to ‘close the loop’ for solar PV panels at the end of their lifetime. To seize these opportunities, however, preparations for the surge in end-of-life material should begin now.”

“With the right policies and enabling frameworks in place, new industries that recycle and repurpose old solar PV panels will drive considerable economic value creation and will be an important element in the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future,” Mr Amin had added.

Concurring, Surbhi admits that some amount of advance recycling facility is required to ensure that we get high value material out of it. For it to make commercial sense, one must incorporate those advance technologies. However, in India, we do not even have the conventional technology to separate glass from module waste. A module is made up of various elements—-on the face of it—80% of this is glass and metal and most of the metal is aluminium. Since both glass and aluminium are not potentially environmentally hazardous, people think that majority of the module is not hazardous and there’s no need to take any action.

Moreover, India neither has a policy guideline nor the operational infrastructure required to ensure the recycling of module waste. Recycling facilities for solar panels with antimony-containing glass are not available in the country, the report by Bridge to India states. “The cost of recycling is estimated at between Rs 17,300 to Rs 20,800 per tonne in Europe and the United States. Depending on the distance, transportation can add 60% to 100% to that cost. By comparison, the value of recovered materials is estimated to be only around $45-130 per tonne, depending on the recycling technology used for crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules. Various attempts are being made, especially in the EU and U.S. to ensure a higher recovery rate of raw materials in a cost-effective manner”, it adds.

In India, the entire waste is a problem as currently, nothing is recycled and 100% of the materials are most likely going into landfills. These are lead, polymers—a kind of plastic and halogenated compound—so if its burnt, HFCs would be emitted and that is a serious concern in every country now. Moreover, the potential hazards of lead are well-known.

Globally, there are two kinds of modules—one is the thin film module and the other is crystalline silicon modules. More than 90% of installations in India are crystalline silicon modules, but the country does have 5% to 7% insulations of thin film also. Thin film is made up of cadmium telluride compounds—they are also environmentally hazardous, but the good thing is in the case of thin film, a leading manufacturer has advanced recycling technologies and facilities in place. Therefore, they are able to take care of the modules—but, in countries where there is no regulation like India, those modules are most likely going down the landfill with other modules. If harmful materials from those modules get into the environment, including soil and water, it is extremely lethal, warns Surbhi.

“It is our worry about all these aspects leaving a scar on solar—we all have been enthusiastic about solar since it is a green source of energy—but to really make it green, we have to ensure that the entire lifecycle is green—-so not only the point of generation of power, but when it goes towards the end of its life or there’s early retirement of modules, we have to ensure that these are taken proper care of,” she reasons.

Sapna Gopal is an independent journalist and writes on clean energy