According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, India is expected to generate 0.5 million tonnes (mt) of solar photovoltaic (PV) waste by 2030. This figure may go up to 4.5-7.5 mt by 2050. This is a matter of concern as the waste will become un-manageable if it is not recycled. There have been discussions on this issue in India; however, concrete steps have not been taken yet. Nevertheless, with the implementation of the Solar Waste Action Plan (SWAP), pilot things have changed in the country. SWAP has been initiated by Sofies, a consulting firm, and funded by the Netherlands-based Signify Foundation and Doen Foundation. The pilot aims to develop solutions for better management of the waste generated from solar projects, mainly solar PV panels.
In 2018, during the first phase of SWAP, a secondary research-based feasibility study was prepared to look at the solar waste landscape in India, the key players, technology options, commercial feasibility, etc. During this phase, Poseidon Solar (which is already involved in the processing of silicon in PV panels) was chosen as the technology partner. Also, many existing companies that were already working in the e-waste management space were picked as partners.
Post this phase, a team of professionals from Sofies and Poseidon Solar conducted a study tour across Europe in November 2019 to learn about the best practices of solar waste management. In Europe, the team pitched to a number of donors (including Signify Foundation and Doen Foundation) in a bid to extend the scope of the first phase and look at three broad components. One, understand where off-grid solar is available across India and ways to manage its end-of-life recycling. Two, upscale the capacity of the existing dismantlers in India. Three, set up a pilot solar PV recycling facility. The SWAP team initiated the third component with the available budget. In September 2020, this pilot project with a PV waste processing capacity of 2.5 tonnes per day was commissioned in Gummudipoondi, Tamil Nadu, at Poseidon solar’s facility.
Poseidon Solar uses the mechanical shredding method for recycling solar PV panels. “We first remove the frame. After this, the junction box is removed and the glass is crushed to separate the components,” explains Ramakrishnan Venugopal, chief executive officer, Poseidon Solar.
The other method is to burn the plastic at a very high temperature to get glass and silicon. The key issue with this method is that it causes pollution. Meanwhile, mechanical shredding (the method used in the pilot project) does not cause pollution. However, the lack of clear separation of components is the downside of the mechanical separation method.
Key challenges and cost-benefit analysis
As solar projects, especially off-grid systems, are spread across the country, the logistics of taking the solar waste to the recycling plant is the biggest challenge. Moreover, as solar panels are heavy, their transportation becomes cumbersome and expensive.
“A key challenge for the pilot project, in particular, was the reluctance of most of the developers or individuals to give away their solar panels for free for recycling,” says Ankit Kapasi, director (operations), Sofies India. However, with the support and goodwill of a Gujarat- based utility company, SWAP was able to collect and process its first batch of 5 tonnes of solar PV waste. This helped the pilot operate at comparatively lower costs. However, the transportation cost of the solar panels from Surat to Chennai was expected to be high. “The cost of transporting the first batch was Rs 400 per panel,” adds Kapasi. The high cost of transportation even before spending on recycling was a significant concern for the SWAP team, given that they benefited by receiving the “raw material” at no cost. Having said that, the transportation cost incurred on domestic recycling of solar PV waste is obviously much lower than the alternative of sending the panels from India to the US or Europe for recycling.
Another challenge for the pilot project is that an exact cost-benefit analysis is not possible as the sample size of the waste processed was small (around 5 tonnes). In addition, the transportation cost from Gujarat alone cannot be taken as the basis for costs as the transportation cost will decrease if the PV waste is sourced from states in southern India in the future. “According to my estimates, the recoverable value will be less than 50 per cent of the total recycling cost without including the transportation cost,” says Venugopal.
In order to make the waste management of solar PV panels commercially viable, it is necessary to decide which stakeholder should be responsible for paying the extra cost/premium of recycling. “Currently, the practice is that the developers are responsible for paying the extra cost for waste management. In the future, this can change if a rule is formulated wherein the solar PV panel manufacturer is liable to pay for the recycling,” he adds.
Suggestions for different stakeholders
With the experience gained from the pilot plant, the SWAP team has some suggestions for all the stakeholders involved in the recycling of solar PV panels. These comprise policymakers, developers, module manufacturers and waste recyclers. “Going forward, policymakers should have in place a strategy akin to extended producer responsibility, which is prevalent in Europe,” Kapasi says. There are more stringent ways for policymakers to ensure proper waste management. “There should be a ban on waste PV panels going to the landfills. Although this alternative is cheaper (at low volume of waste), it is harmful for the environment, says Kishore Ganesan, consultant, Sofies India.
Apart from this, there are other innovative ideas for managing solar waste such as crushing the solar panels, mixing them with bitumen and then using the mixture for road construction. “A more sustainable approach, however, is to ensure that 50-70 per cent of the recycled materials such as glass and plastic are reused in different industries,” says Venugopal. However, as the PV waste management industry is at a nascent stage, recyclers need more feedback from the industries to which the waste materials will be sold.
For solar project developers, the key suggestion is to start including the life cycle costs of PV waste management while bidding for tariffs. The decline in solar tariffs will be futile if this clean energy technology ultimately adds a social cost for the future generation. According to the SWAP team, ultimately someone will have to pay for the significant amount of waste that will be generated and merely delaying the issue will not help anyone. “In a bid to improve the dynamics of the renewable energy sector with, say, round-the-clock tenders, the industry is already witnessing higher tariffs,” says Ganesan. Therefore, the industry (especially utilities) may embrace a similar increase in tariff for ensuring sustainability.
It has been often discussed that old PV panels can be recycled by module manufacturers to make new PV modules with lower efficiencies. The SWAP team strongly believes that this approach is not possible due to the technology improvements taking place. “The price of new solar panels is already falling and simultaneously panel efficiency is increasing. Going forward, the recycling of old panels to make new less efficient ones will not make commercial sense,” Venugopal notes.
For solar waste recyclers, a key suggestion is to focus on the environment, and the health and safety standards for workers as solar waste management involves the processing of broken glass and the release of fumes and dust. The safety concerns are not only crucial at the time of recycling but also during transportation as each solar module weighs around 25 kg.
The SWAP pilot project is tackling the serious issue of solar waste management. However, a lot needs to be done going forward. Sofies India plans to raise more funds, work further on its analysis to get a clearer picture of commercial feasibility and analyse ways in which the entire supply chain of solar waste management can become more efficient. It is also targeting to ensure the processing of over 200 tonnes of waste by next year.
Poseidon Solar has to work hard on increasing revenue from material recovery and decreasing the logistics costs to make PV recycling commercially viable. To this end, it plans to increase the amount of material recovery from the current range of 60-80 per cent to close to 95 per cent of total weight of panel through process improvements. In order to reduce the high logistics costs, it plans to explore the opportunity of mobile recycling of solar panels. “For mobile recycling, the process can be broken in two parts. A machine can go to the project site and do a part of the processing that reduces the materials to be shipped while final recycling takes place in the plant,” says Venugopal.
By Sarthak Takyar