Working on Waste

Roadmap for end-of-life management of solar projects

The discussion and debate on solar photovoltaic (PV) module waste management are consistently gaining shape in India. Since last year there has been a growing awareness regarding the recycling of PV modules either to extract their precious metals or to manufacture new modules once the old ones reach their end of life. The fundamental concern is proper and environmentally sound management of PV module waste. Stakeholder concern is building up as no framework or strategy is in place yet in India.

Under the guidance of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, the EU-India Technical Cooperation Project: Energy, SolarPower Europe, the National Solar Energy Federation of India (NSEFI) and PV CYCLE are working together to draft recommendations for a road map and strategy for treating solar PV module waste in India. To this end, the EU-India Technical Cooperation Project: Energy organised an online meeting of stakeholders on July 8, 2020. Jan Clyncke, managing director, PV CYCLE and SubrahmanyamPulipaka, chief executive officer, NSEFI gave a presentation in this meeting which was attended by waste management professionals, policymakers and industry players. The primary idea of the meeting was to discuss the solutions that have worked in Europe regarding solar PV waste management and consider a similar road map for India.

A summary of the key discussion points of this meeting…

Points of debate

A key point was the need for a cost-benefit analysis of waste management of the equipment used in a solar project. Is the value of metals such as aluminium, copper, silicon and glass in a PV module high enough to justify the costs associated with the collection, logistics, treatment, disposal and other administration and reporting expenditure? The key issue is that the exact value of the materials that can be extracted from the module is not yet fixed and depends on the quality of the waste management process followed. Also, any investment model calculated by the recycler would have to incorporate a return rate of only, say, 80 per cent of the modules because the remaining would be lost due to bad weather or theft or, perhaps, be sold to another country after the end of its life cycle. Moreover, with technologically advanced PV modules entering the market, there is uncertainty whether the value of hazardous metals used will become lower, thereby making recycling less profitable.

There is also a growing view that the entire scope of end-of-life management should be widened to include proper decommissioning of the entire solar project. This includes sustainable decommissioning of module mounting structures, balance of system (BoS), concrete and civil works.

Since the lifespan of a solar PV project is around 25 years, there is a possibility that the module manufacturer would no longer be available at the end of the project’s life. Thus, the business model for recycling would have to incorporate an advance/upfront payment of a recycling fee for PV modules purchased from the manufacturer.

On an average, a solar PV module consists of 80 per cent glass. The second and the third biggest shares are of aluminium and plastics respectively, while the smallest share is of metals and semiconductors. This means that PV waste recycling would primarily revolve around the recycling of glass. In contrast, in electronic appliances, metals and semi-conductors comprise the majority share while plastics have the minority share. Therefore, the recycling of these appliances cannot be compared with the recycling of PV modules.

On a different note, the recycler should be aware that in the coming decade PV waste will be scattered across the country. Currently, states in south India such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana dominate the solar PV capacity. However, solar installations in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are increasing and will dominate the market going forward. Any policy on waste management should, therefore, incorporate this changing geographical mix as the logistics and transportation of PV waste comprises a major part of the recycling cost.

Possible road maps for waste management

The main objective of creating a waste management ecosystem is to set up a cost-efficient and environmentally sound take-back system for not just solar PV panels but also for inverters, batteries and BoS. Broadly, two options are available to achieve this objective. One option is that the recycling work is done on a voluntary basis wherein a few companies demonstrate to the market how they are managing their extended producer responsibilities (EPRs). The second, more stringent, option is to make recycling mandatory. In this option, a visible recycling fee is paid by the end consumer at the time of purchase.

Considering the second option of mandatory recycling as the better alternative, four strategies are currently being discussed. One, a nationwide take-back system for PV panels, inverters, batteries and BoS for reuse, recycling or treatment of the waste. Two, a pay-as-you-put financing and a visible fee paid in advance. Three, the setting up of a professional organisation to cater to waste management in the entire country. Four, involving waste pickers, thereby creating employment and business.

Key learnings from Europe

A key learning from Europe is to impose a landfill ban on all equipment of a solar project. Moreover, the concept of EPR for PV panels has been established in Europe and the same can be followed in India as well. To promote compliance with waste management, a fee per unit cost of electricity generated can be included in the tender documents. This policy has been followed by Italy. Also, like in

Europe, industry stakeholders could join hands and work together towards waste management as doing it alone is expensive. A few leading companies or public sector enterprises could come together and work on a pilot, which could serve as a reference point for the industry.

However, going forward, the industry will have to work towards solutions that address India-specific challenges. What worked in Europe may not necessarily work in India.

Public opinion

In order to develop a comprehensive road map for the management of PV waste in India, the EU-India Technical Cooperation Project: Energy devised a questionnaire to understand the stakeholders’ perspective. About 75 per cent of the respondents were interested in taking the responsibility for end-of-life management of PV panels, inverters and batteries sold in the country. They agreed to accept a recycling fee that takes into account the level of recyclability of a PV panel. Around 58 per cent of the respondents backed the idea of setting up a fund for waste management of existing PV panels in the country. Around 42 per cent of the respondents opined that the cost of waste management should be borne by the disposing party at the time of disposal while 33 per cent felt that a fee should be paid at the time of the purchase of PV panels by the owners.

Moreover, 75 per cent of the respondents felt that imposing EPR would push the industry towards a circular economy, while just around 17 per cent felt that material bans and restrictions alone would solve the problem. About 83 per cent of the respondents believed that the idea of setting a target of a minimum amount of recycled content to be used in the manufacture of new panels would help in achieving the goal of PV waste management.

While polls such as these give an indication of public opinion, their results are often impacted by the way the question is framed, the number and the profession of the respondents, and even the mood of the respondents. There is a possibility that after attending an hour-long meeting on the waste management crisis, they are nudged to vote in favour of solving the issue. A silent majority still feels that it is too early to find a solution to a problem that will not arise before 2040-50.

That being said, the results are broadly positive and industry stakeholders are clearly taking end-of-life waste management more seriously today as compared to last year. The key point is that it is essential to put in place an effective EPR framework today in order to ensure that end-of-life management is well developed ahead of time. This also ties in with the larger goal of the solar energy industry – to provide a clean solution to climate issues for future generations.

By Sarthak Takyar

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