Coming Up Soon, The Problem OF Managing Solar Waste

Highlights :

  • India is estimated to generate a cumulative PV waste as high as 34,600 metric tonnes by the end of 2030.
  • From extending life, to stopping production of outdated modules, to a formal recycling policy, everything is on the table to prevent solar waste from blighting this ‘clean’ sector.
Coming Up Soon, The Problem OF Managing Solar Waste A view of Installations at Bhadla After Storm

As large-scale installation of PV solar modules increases in India, the volume of modules that reach the end of their life is also expected to grow manifold. By the end of 2040, the country will represent 30% of the world’s installed solar capacity, a recent IEA report has found.

India, which currently doesn’t categorise PV waste as hazardous waste, is estimated to generate cumulative PV waste as high as 34,600 metric tonnes by the end of 2030, states a market report jointly prepared by the National Solar Energy Federation of India (NSEFI), SolarPower Europe and PVCycle in October 2021.

If we add to this our ambitious solar target of installing 280 GW by 2030, by the following decade, India’s numbers with respect to solar waste will increase almost five times, industry experts stress. Consider that as per market estimates, to install each megawatt of solar power, about 3000 solar modules are needed. Also, to increase domestic production, the government has hiked up custom duty on solar inverters from 5% to 20%. Further, the government also plans to implement 40% BCD (Basic custom duty) on solar panels from April 2022.

Industry players are advocating the creation of clear guidelines on solar recycling in the country. Amplus Solar’s Ritu Lal, VP, opines, “Why this may be taking time is because we are still in the early stages of solarising. The large-scale deployment of solar modules, which have a life-span of 25 years, started only in the last 6-7 years.”

However, she shares a word of caution, “Having said that, it is time that we have a recycling policy in place. Enforcement of this policy is also important. With the scale of solar being envisioned over the next decade, efficient recycling of solar waste will be a critical element of our solar success story.”

According to a report produced by the International Renewable Energy Agency in July 2016, cumulative global PV waste was estimated to reach as high as 250,000 metric tons by the year’s end. By 2050, that figure was expected to increase to 5.5–6 million tons. Consequently, in the last few years, methods for recycling solar modules have been developing worldwide to reduce the environmental impact of PV waste and to recover valuable materials from old modules.

The European Union has a strong and clear regulatory framework to support PV recycling processes. The EU’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive imposes responsibility for the disposal of waste on the manufacturers or distributors who are introducing or installing such equipment for the first time.

Arunav Uppal, Head Engineering, Amp Energy India, says, “As per the framework on solar recycling in European markets, 90% of the materials used in solar panels now are being reused. The rarest of rare materials like silver, indium, and cerium are being extracted for reuse.”

He adds, “As far as managing solar waste is concerned, nothing needs to be reinvented. We need to learn and adapt from the EU and some countries which are already using recycle processes.”

For that, however, India also needs to have a clear framework that allows policy benefits for recycling, says Uppal. Currently, there is not even a single factory in the country for recycling solar waste. All big PV module manufacturers like Adani, Waaree and Vikram Solar have grown capacities by almost three times over in the last two to three years, but there has been no talk of adopting a solar recycling process.

Uppal says, “The enforcement has to come from the government so that it can be done in a proper way.” As we grow by leaps and bounds, a strong resolve is required from not only the government but also the industry to commit to discussions and actions around solar waste management and recycling processes.

Ritu Lal says, “Amplus has been working with different industry groups and bodies to try and push for policy and regulations in this direction. We do not have any norms yet on recycling solar waste, particularly solar modules.”

A simple first step might be to push back against production, and consumption of low wattage, older technology polycrystalline modules, many of which are still being manufactured and sold in the country. Many experts opine privately that modules below a certain output, unless required for specific purposes, should not be sold for regular rooftop use anymore. The suggested range lies between 300W to 370W, based on the inputs we got. This might be happening on its own however, as the industry consolidates around a few big players and sourcing inputs like cells becomes harder for the small players still manufacturing these. The additional 10 GW plus of manufacturing capacity that will come from the Solar PLI scheme will also be for high quality cell and module manufacturing.

That is also when a comprehensive solar recycling policy will make sense. The experience of the lead acid battery recycling is a good indicator, where the industry claims almost 90% recycling levels in a short span of time, after being mandated by the government as well as pressure from other stakeholders in the system. India has a well-defined deposit refund system (DRS) based on the principles of extended producer responsibility (EPR) for recycling used lead acid batteries (ULABs), which has worked well with the organised sector especially.

Other options also exist, like extending the life of relatively obsolete panels by their use in other applications, as being done in soma countries in Africa already.

"Want to be featured here or have news to share? Write to info[at]