True Sustainability: Role of a circular economy in reducing renewables’ footprint

While the adoption of renewable energy has gained momentum, it is important to maintain an equal focus on the environmental ramifications of renewable energy deployment pertaining to construction, production of essential equipment, and dismantling and disposal of used components. Some organisations have started making conscious efforts in this direction. They have adopted circular economy measures in their operations. However, a lot of ground needs to be covered to make renewables a truly sustainable industry. Industry experts discuss the situation…

Ankit Kapasi, Lead – Sustainability Services, India, dss+

As a global sustainability consulting firm, dss+ is committed to saving lives and creating a sustainable future. We focus on sustainability impact and business value by building capabilities for transformational journeys. We support companies across the globe, devise sustainability strategies and build capabilities needed to deliver both impact and value.

We believe there is a strong role of circularity in the renewable energy industry. At dss+, we support companies in impleme­nting and integrating sustainability in their operations to bring about transformational change. We advise companies globally on waste management strategies, with our expertise in special waste streams such as e-waste, batteries, solar, plastics and end-of-life vehicles.

Sujoy Ghosh, Vice President and Country Managing Director – India, First Solar

Since its inception, First Solar has integrated the principles of the circular economy in its operations. For the past 25 years, our cadmium telluride thin-film solar PV modules have been desig­ned for circularity from the beginning of the product life cycle to the end of its usable life. Our semiconductor is manufactured by compounding the by-products that are found in the tailings of the copper and zinc refining process. The dual glass design with the use of poly-ole­fins as an encapsulating material facilitates high-value recycling at the end of life (EOL). First Solar invests in establishing high-value EOL recycling capabilities ac­ross all its manufacturing locations to ge­nerate usable products from solar PV mo­dule waste streams, reusing the semiconductor material extracted from EOL recycling. Our ability to offer products and associated services that align with the core principles of the circular economy differentiates us from the rest of the solar manufacturing ecosystem.

What are the steps that you have taken or plan to take to ensure the responsible disposal of project components such as solar panels at the end of their life cycle? Does your company engage with consumers to promote circularity, recycling and responsible product use?

Ankit Kapasi

The Solar Waste Action Plan (SWAP) pilot, funded by the Netherlands-based Signify Fo­undation and Doen Founda­tion, was la­un­­ched to develop solutions for better ma­na­­gement of end-of-life solar-based pro­­duct waste, with a focus on PV modules.

The SWAP team, led by Sofies (now dss+) with Poseidon Solar as the technology partner, established a pilot PV recycling facility with a PV waste processing capacity of 2.5 tonnes per day. At the end of this pilot, we processed over 200 tonnes of PV panels for end-of-life (EoL) management. The pilot had about 75 per cent material recovery rate, and was able to recover aluminium, glass, plastics and e-waste such as the junction box and cables.

The SWAP pilot provided excellent insights into the technical and economic feasibility of solar panel/PV recycling in the Indian context.

Sujoy Ghosh

We are the only solar PV manufacturer that has provided our customers with solutions to recycle their PV modules at our self owned and operated EOL recycling facility for the past 25 years. We have commissioned India’s first-of-its-kind high-value PV module EOL recycling facility at our manufacturing facility in Tamil Nadu. This facility, with a capacity to process 2,000 tonnes per month of module waste, will not only recycle production scrap but also provide an option to our customers in India to recycle their solar PV modules at the end of the usable life in a safe and compliant manner.

We are proud of the fact that First Solar is a founding member (and the only solar PV manufacturer) of the recently created Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy Industry Coalition (RECEIC), which was launched by the Minister for Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in July 2023, on the sidelines of the G20 discussions on climate change. The RECEIC is a coalition of 39 companies across 11 different countries and is designed to be a platform for the exchange of knowledge and best practices, fostering sustainable practices among its participating industries. Its core principles revolve around par­t­nerships for impact, technology cooperation, and finance for scalability. It demonstrates our commitment to promoting circularity in the industry.

Are there any specific regulations or guidelines in the renewable energy industry that promote circular economy and sustainability in operations? If not, what are your policy recommendations in this space?

Ankit Kapasi

Key circular economy regulations in India focus on waste management, pollution control and resource conservation. These regulations primarily include the Solid Waste Management Rules, E-Waste Manage­ment Rules, Plastic Waste Mana­gement Rules and Hazardous Waste Manage­me­nt Rules. These rules aim to promote the reduction, reuse and recyc­l­ing of waste materials to minimise the environmental impact of companies and promote sustainable development.

The National Resource Efficiency Policy, 2019, was launched with the aim of promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns, enhancing resource efficiency, and reducing the environmental impact of economic activities. The policy includes measures to promote the adoption of circular business models, such as product-as-a-service, leasing and sharing, and recycled materials.

Other regulations, such as the Extended Producers Responsibility framework, make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products. Solar waste treatment has now been included in the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2022. It requires every manufacturer and producer of solar PV cells to:

  • Store solar PV modules as per the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines.
  • Process waste other than PV modules as per applicable rules.
  • Register, file annual returns and maintain an inventory.
  • Comply with the CPCB’s standard operating procedures and guidelines.
  • Recover material as per the CPCB guidelines.

Sujoy Ghosh

In November 2022, the Indian government, represented by the MoEFCC and the Ministry of New and Renewable Ener­gy, introduced legislation aimed at expan­ding the scope of existing electronic waste regulations, including solar PV modules. This regulation, as subsequently am­en­ded in January 2023, will also create extended producer obligations for mandatory recycling of solar PV waste at the end of its useful life. These regulations were expected to come into effect on April 1, 2023, but the actual recycling obligations will come into effect in 2034, when the waste strea­ms reach sizeable proportions.

In the interim period, there is a provision for voluntary recycling or storage of wa­ste, awaiting detailed regulations. In addition to regulatory mandates, there are voluntary eco-labels such as the El­ectronic Pro­duct Environmental Assess­ment Tool (EPEAT), which helps drive su­stainability leadership. EPEAT is a globally recognised and independently validated eco-label that addresses entire product life cycles. The label incorporates criteria that promo­te a circular eco­nomy by re­quiring manu­facturers to have a recycling programme in place, setting material re­covery targets and encouraging increa­sed recycled content in their products. EPEAT ensures that manufacturers’ product clai­ms are validated by reputable in­ter­national certification firms. First Solar’s Series 6 and Series 6 Plus products have been awarded the EPEAT Silver rating, certifying that they exceeded the basic but stringent environmental and social criteria  of a Bronze rating. We are currently pursuing alignment with EPEAT’s new Ultra Low-Carbon Solar Criteria, and plan to register our Series 7 modules in EPEAT in 2023.

What is the future of water as a resource in renewable energy projects in terms of scarcity, alternatives and related challenges? 

Ankit Kapasi

The role of water as a resource in renewable energy projects is marked by a complex interplay of opportunities and challenges. The challenge of water scar­city, owing to factors such as population growth and climate change, could affect its availability for both traditional and em­erging energy sources. While renewable energy technologies such as hydropower and ocean energy heavily rely on water, this can be addressed with efficient water usage and ecosystem-friendly designs.

In response to water scarcity, the renewable energy sector has been exploring alternative solutions such as solar and wind power, which have lower water de­mands. However, these alternatives br­ing their own challenges, such as intermittency and land use conflicts. The growth of bioenergy could also create water sc­arcity issues if not managed with sustainable practices.

In our opinion, collaborations will be crucial to ensure holistic water resource management, considering both energy and societal demands. The future depends on technological breakthroughs, policy frameworks that promote water-efficient practices, and a holistic approach that recogni­ses the intricate relationship between wa­ter, energy and the environment.

The water-energy nexus is the interdependent relationship between water and energy resources. In essence, water is req­uir­ed for various stages of energy production, such as extraction, processing, cooling, and power generation, while energy is required for water treatment, distribution, and wastewater management. Although most of renewable energy technologies are less water intensive than fossil fuel ba­sed energy sources, low carbon does not mean a low water footprint. Hence, the energy source must be selected after having considered the water stress in the location in addition to the environmental benefit. Among renewable energy sour­c­es, concentrated solar power (CSP), hy­dropower and biomass have highest wa­ter footprint while wind power and solar PV have the lowest water footprint (m3/GJ)

Sujoy Ghosh

The World Resources Institute reports that a quarter of the global population is currently struggling with severe water stress. Our new facility in India, which will achieve commercial production in the second half of 2023, is in a region of high baseline wa­ter stress. Our new manufacturing facility has been designed with sustainability in mind. Our solar PV manufacturing facility in India is expected to achieve net zero wa­ter withdrawal, exclusively relying on tertiary treated reverse osmosis water sourced from the city’s sewage treatment plant. The facility will ensure zero wastewater discharge. Instead of being discharged, the wastewater will be treated onsite and converted into fresh water so it can be reused in our operations. In addition to maximising alternative water so­ur­ces – water that is not derived from freshwater or groundwater sources – we are driving continuous improvement in water conservation through internal monitoring, benchmarking and optimisation of our process tool designs.