UPSC MAINS 2019 : India stares at pile of solar e-waste

solar panel


India stares at pile of solar e-waste

Topic in Syllabus: General Studies Paper 3: Indian Economy – Infrastructure

solar panel


India urgently requires a policy on standards for the use of materials in solar module manufacturing and end-of-life waste management.


More about on news:

  • The government needs to bring out a policy on solar module waste management and standards for use of material for manufacturing.
  • India’s PV (photovoltaic) waste volume is estimated to grow to 200,000 tonnes by 2030 and around 1.8 million tonnes by 2050
  • The European Union (EU) already has an Eco-Design Directive 2009,
  • a policy instrument to reduce environmental impact of energy-related products throughout their life cycle,
  • The solar sector continues to grow robustly, from a mere three gigawatt (GW) in 2014 to over 28 GW currently, there is still no clarity on solar waste management in India.


India’s scenario:

  • Solar cell modules are made by processing sand to make silicon, casting silicon ingots, using wafers to create cells and then assembling them to make modules.
  • These modules are 80% glass and aluminum, and non-hazardous. Other materials used, including polymers, metals, metallic compounds and alloys, and are classified as potentially hazardous
  • India neither has a requisite policy guideline nor the minimal operational infrastructure to ensure recycling of module waste using conventional recycling technologies.
  • India is poorly positioned to handle PV waste as it doesn’t yet have policy guidelines on the same
  • a lack of a policy framework is coupled with the fact that even basic recycling facilities for laminated glass and e-waste are unavailable
  • India is among the leading markets for solar cells in the world, buoyed by the government’s commitment to install 100 GW of solar power by 2022.
  • So far, India has installed solar cells for about 28 GW and this is largely from imported solar PV cells.

renewable crisis

The Lifetime of Solar Panels:

  • The life expectancy of solar panels is about 30 years before decommissioning.
  • During the life of photovoltaic panels, a 20 per cent decrease in power capacity might occur.
  • Between the first 10 to 12 years, the maximum decrease in efficiency is 10 per cent, and 20 per cent when reaching 25 years.
  • Still, experience shows that, in reality, the efficiency drops by merely 6 to 8 per cent after 25 years.
  • The lifespan of solar panels may thus be much longer than officially stated. The lifespan of high quality PV panels may even reach 30 to 40 years, and be still functional afterwards, though with decreasing efficacy.


Disposal of Solar Panels:

  • From a regulatory aspect, PV panel waste still falls under the general waste classification.
  • A sole exception exists at EU-level, where PV panels are defined as e-waste in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.
  • The PV panel waste management is thus regulated by this directive, additionally to other legal frameworks.
  • The solar cells manufacturers are bound by law to fulfil specific legal requirements and recycling standards in order to make sure that solar panels do not become a burden to the environment.
  • That is when technologies to recycle solar panels started emerging.
  • Photovoltaic producers collaborated with governmental institutions and have come up with a few ways to tackle solar waste.


Solar Panel Waste:

  • If recycling processes were not put in place, there would be 60 million tons of PV panels waste lying in landfills by the year 2050.
  • Since all PV cells contain certain amount of toxic substances that would truly become a not-so-sustainable way of sourcing energy.
  • The common belief of solar panels not being recyclable is, therefore, a myth.
  • It is, however, a process that needs time to be widely implemented and requires further research to reach its full potential of adequately recycling all solar panel components.
  • For that reason, it is necessary that designing and recycling units collaborate closely so that the ability to recycle is ensured by mindful eco-designs.


Solar Panel Recycling Processes:

  • There are two main types of solar panels, requiring different recycling approaches. Both types—silicon based and thin-film based—can be recycled using distinct industrial processes.
  • Currently, silicon based panels are more common, though that does not mean that there would not be great value in the materials of thin-film based cells.
  • Research studies conducted on the topic of recycling solar panels have resulted in numerous technologies.
  • Some of them even reach an astonishing 96% recycling efficiency, but the aim is to raise the bar higher in the future.


Silicon Based Solar Panel Recycling:

  • The recycling process of silicon-based PV panels starts with disassembling the actual product to separate aluminium and glass parts. Almost all (95%) of the glass can be reused, while all external metal parts are used for re-molding cell frames.
  • The remainder materials are treated at 500°C in a thermal processing unit in order to ease up the binding between the cell elements.
  • Due to the extreme heat, the encapsulating plastic evaporates, leaving the silicon cells ready to be further processed.
  • The supporting technology ensures that not even this plastic is wasted, therefore it is reused as a heat source for further thermal processing.
  • 80% of these can readily be reused, while the remainder is further refined.
  • Silicon particles—called wafers—are etched away using acid. Broken wafers are melted to be used again for manufacturing new silicon modules, resulting in 85% recycling rate of the silicon material.


The global experience:

The solar PV recycling industry is prevalent in western countries.


In Europe:

  • There is an international PV industry programme called “PV Cycle” that has been set up to address the recycling issue for solar power.
  • It was introduced in 2009 and is a first-of-its-kind large-scale dismantling facility for end-of-life modules.
  • Recycling PV modules ensures that cadmium, which is considered a pollutant, is reclaimed and used again in new PV modules now and in the foreseeable future.
  • The programme recycles 95 per cent of the materials used in non-silicon based modules and almost 85 per cent of silicon-based modules.


solar e waste

The United States:

  • Companies such as Abound Solar, First Solar, and Suntech have stated that they design their panels with end-of-life in mind.
  • First Solar has a prefunded collection and recycling programme for solar PV cells and modules that they install.
  • A trust structure has been set up to guarantee funds available for recovery and recycling regardless of the financial status of First Solar.

However, the fund was discontinued. The company reuses up to 95 per cent of the semi-conductor material in new modules. Abound Solar has a “cradle-to-cradle” programme.


E-Waste Management Rules 2016:

  • Manufacturer, dealer, refurbisher and Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) have been introduced as additional stakeholders in the rules.
  • The applicability of the rules has been extended to components, consumables, spares and parts of EEE in addition to equipment as listed in Schedule I.
  • Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) and other mercury containing lamp brought under the purview of rules.
  • Collection mechanism based approach has been adopted to include collection centre, collection point, take back system etc for collection of e – waste by Producers under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
  • Option has been given for setting up of PRO, e – waste exchange, e – retailer, Deposit Refund Scheme as additional channel for implementation of EPR by Producers to ensure efficient channelization of e – waste.
  • Provision for Pan India EPR Authorization by CPCB has been introduced replacing the state wise EPR authorization.
  • Deposit Refund Scheme has been introduced as an additional economic instrument wherein the producer charges an additional amount as a deposit at the time of sale of the electrical and electronic equipment and returns it to the consumer along with interest when the end – of – life electrical and electronic equipment is returned.
  • The e – waste exchange as an option has been provided in the rules as an independent market instrument offering assistance or independent electronic systems offering services for sale and purchase of e-waste generated from end of life electrical and electronic equipment between agencies or organizations authorized under these rules.
  • The manufacturer is also now responsible to collect e – waste generated during the manufacture of any electrical and electronic equipment and channelises it for recycling or disposal and seeks authorization from SPCB.
  • The dealer, if has been given the responsibility of collection on behalf of the producer, need to collect the e – waste by providing the consumer a box and channelize it to Producer.


What needs to be done?

  • Mandating module manufacturers to use environmentally sustainable design and materials with end-of-life in mind (similar to the eco-design initiative of the EU).
  • Specifying liability and responsibility of each stakeholder for waste management and treatment.
  • Laying down standards for PV waste collection, treatment and disposal.
  • Encouraging mutual recycling responsibility agreements between module suppliers, project developers and power purchasers.
  • Undertaking regular surveys of recycling facilities to understand technology and capacity levels.
  • Identifying investment and technical requirements for dedicated PV recycling facilities with focus on high-value recovery.


Sample Question:

“The solar sector continues to grow robustly, there is no clarity on solar waste management in India” comment.

India stares at pile of solar e-waste