The first quarter of this year has been bright for the solar sector. According to the solar market update report by Mercom India Research, the country installed over 10 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity, the highest amount to date for a quarter.  

And though there may be reason to cheer as we come step by step closer to India’s need to deploy 292 GW of solar capacity by 2030, there is also reason to look into the future and worry about the solar waste the country will generate in the process. Also, how prepared and equipped will we be to manage this waste and salvage the minerals present in the discarded modules  

These minerals include silicon, copper, tellurium, and cadmium, which have been classified critical minerals for India by the Ministry of Mines. It is well known that recovering these minerals from solar panels decreases the country’s dependency on imports and increases our mineral security. 

Typically, solar modules have a lifespan of 25 years, but many get damaged much earlier due to reasons such as transportation, handling or mishaps. For instance, just some weeks ago nature’s fury damaged one of the largest floating solar panel plants on the Omkareshwar Dam reservoir in Madhya Pradesh, reportedly causing a “major loss” to solar panels. Such events translate into even further solar waste being generated. 

Recycling plan

Considering all these factors, it is necessary to be prepared for recycling. Studies show that waste generated could reach up to 600 kilotonnes by 2030 — equivalent to filling up 720 Olympic-size swimming pools. The estimate comes from the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), which released a report, ‘Enabling a Circular Economy in India’s Solar Industry: Assessing the Solar Waste Quantum’, this March.  

The study assessed that waste from the country’s current installed solar capacity will increase to 340 kilotonnes by 2030, containing about 10 kilotonnes of silicon, 12-18 tonnes of silver, and 16 tonnes of cadmium and tellurium. The rest of the 260 kilotonnes of waste will come from new capacities to be built this decade. And most of these will be located in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.  

Recycling solar waste to recover these materials will significantly reduce India’s import dependency. The Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recently amended the Electronic Waste (Management) Rules to include solar cells and modules in its ambit. And the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has also identified solar PV recycling as one of the priorities thrust areas under the Renewable Energy Research and Technology Development (RE-RTD) Programme. 

Though in recent years solar PV cells and their management has been given consideration, and the MoEFCC in its E-waste Management Rules 2022 mandates producers of solar cells and modules to manage their waste under the extended producer responsibility (EPR) framework, more needs to be done. The study recommends, “a periodically updated database of the installed solar capacity (containing details such as module technology, manufacturer, and commissioning date) to accurately map plausible waste generation centres and strategic deployment of waste management infrastructure.” 

Innovative mechanism

For the solar industry, CEEW recommends that it arranges reverse logistics, storage, dismantling centres and recycling facilities. “The industry should also explore innovative financing mechanisms and business models for solar waste management.”  While releasing the report, Arunabha Ghosh, CEO, CEEW, said, “As we witness the remarkable growth of solar from only 4 GW in March 2015 to 73 GW in December 2023, robust recycling mechanisms become increasingly crucial. They safeguard renewable ecosystems, create green jobs, enhance mineral security, foster innovation, and build resilient, circular supply chains.” 

Meanwhile, there is further research being carried out on making recycling of solar panels much easier. Reports from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory talk of the need of eliminating plastic polymer sheets laminated into solar modules which make recycling difficult. Instead, it recommends glass to glass welds for solar panels.  

CEEW also points out that end-of-life solar panel recycling “is an opportunity for India to emerge as a leading hub of circular economy for the solar industry and ensure resilient solar supply chains.” For this, we must step up on our own R&D and commitment.