Solar PV Recycling: Adopting circular value chains for waste management

According to the National Solar Energy Federation of India, 34,600 tonnes of cumulative solar waste may be generated in India by 2030. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the renewable energy sector does not follow the same practice for waste management that was followed for products like plastics, where waste management became a concern only after scaling up. Although the sector may have missed the opportunity to incorporate circularity in product design from the start, there is still hope as the industry is at the early stages of scaling up. How­ever, since solar panels and wind turbines have a long useful life of 25-30 years, the old components that were not designed for recycling have been locked in for a long time.

There are broadly three stages during which waste is generated in the solar supply chain. The bulk is generated in the ma­nu­facturing stage due to breakages. In this phase more waste is expected to be generated in India given the emphasis on domestic manufacturing through production-linked incentive schemes. The second stage is of transportation and installation where breakages take place due to the heavy (35-40 kg) weight of solar panels. The last phase is end of life. Currently, this phase produces less waste.

Indian policymakers have been proactive in PV waste management. In November 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022, which included solar PV panels, modules and cells. However, as the waste management rules were not in place until now, there was little interest in solar PV recycling. In addition, as most of the solar projects are in remote areas, the logistics costs are too high at Rs 12-Rs 18 per kg, making recycling eco­­no­mically unfeasible. The aluminium frame of so­lar panels is typically remo­ved, reducing the amount of recoverable content. While the current volume of waste is low, it is expected to increase over the next two to three years as industry stakeholders face pressure to comply with the new regulations.

Being responsible in the solar industry involves more than just circularity. The sustainable use of labour, water and other critical components in the supply chain is equally important. First Solar is one such manufacturer that has used alternative materials like cadmium and tellurium compounds, which are by-products of the copper and zinc smelting process, to build modules that are independent of the silicon value chain. These “waste” products are used to make solar modules, which help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, at the end of the usable life of the product, the company engages in high-value recycling and recovers around 95 per cent of the semiconductors for reuse. These components can be reused up to 148 times. The biggest component that the company uses for its modules is glass, which is recyclable. In an effort to recycle most components, the company uses glass as the backsheet as well.

The way forward

As the government has put in place regulations for waste management of solar co­m­ponents, industry stakeholders are ta­k­ing serious steps in this space. For instance, Exigo Recycling is set to inaugurate a lithium-ion battery recycling plant in India. It has committed $25 million for e-wa­ste recycling plants in India and is planning to set up op­en battery recycling pl­an­­ts in 10 countries world­wide. Meanwhile, First Solar is in the pro­cess of building a vertically integrated semiconductor-to-module manufacturing plant in Sriperum­budur, which will beco­me operational by end of this year. The company will also set up a high-value recycling unit in India.

The regulations in India place various res­ponsibilities on producers or importers of solar modules, employing the “polluter pa­ys” concept. However, the regulations do not clarify who should pay for recycling. Going forward, industry stakeholders need to work with policymakers to set solar pan­el recycling targets and develop a mechanism in which the added cost of recycling and logistics (the latter often being more than the former) is factored into the solar tariff. In addition, there is a big question re­gar­ding the producer’s obligation at the end of life of solar modules when the manufacturer is no longer in business.

Based on a panel discussion among Nalin Agarwal, Partner, Climate Collective, and India Program Director, New Energy Nexus; Sujoy Ghosh, Vice-President and Country Managing Director, India, First Solar; Namrata Ginoya, Senior Program Manager, WRI; A.L.N. Rao, CEO, Exigo Recycling; Ke Wang, Program Director, Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, at the Responsible Renewable Energy Summit 2023 hosted by the Responsible Energy Initiative and its organising partners, NSEFI, The Nature Conservancy and Vasudha Foundation.

By Sarthak Takyar