By Pratik Joshi
India has witnessed massive solar PV deployment since 2010. It has successfully installed a solar PV capacity of 57.7 GW as of June 2022. The reverse auction mechanism and associated government policies have significantly contributed to the accelerated deployment of large-scale PV systems. The number of engineering, procurement, and commissioning (EPC) businesses involved in installing solar power plants has grown multifold. Despite this development, the lack of domestic manufacturing facilities is a concern from the trade balance and energy security point of view.
Currently, the country has a production capacity of 2.5 GW of solar cells and up to 10 GW of solar panels. While the deadline for the present target of installing 100 GW of PV capacity by 2022 is approaching closer, the Government of India has set another ambitious capacity addition target. The Prime Minister of India has announced to install 500 GW of non-fossil energy capacity by 2030 at the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November 2021. A policy document on a national programme on high-efficiency solar PV modules published by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) reported that 280 GW of solar PV capacity is required to achieve an optimum energy mix by 2030. Assuming that India will install 60 GW by the end of 2022, the country needs to add an annual capacity of around 27.5 GW for the next eight years to install 280 GW by the end of the decade.
India’s government has launched a production-linked incentives scheme to boost domestic manufacturing of polysilicon, ingots, wafers, cells, and modules. The fully integrated manufacturing plants are expected to operate as early as 2025. While the extensive capacity addition is expected to fulfill the country’s ever-increasing energy demand, thereby empowering its economic growth, it also raises concerns about the management of PV modules after the end of their intended application (i.e., power generation). This article highlights the need to manage End-of-Life (EOL) modules, their scale and present status, and potential measures to prevent them from becoming a large-scale problem.
Why should we care about EOL PV modules?
A typical PV module of crystalline solar cells consists of materials like Aluminum, Glass, Silicon, Silver, EVA film, polymers or plastics (such as PP, PET, and PVF), Tin, and Lead. Depending on its technology, a thin film module comprises Copper, Indium, Gallium, Selenium, Cadmium, and Telluride. The management of EOL PV modules is critical from an environmental, business, and sustainability perspective. There are three reasons why PV panels must be appropriately managed after their end of life. First, materials like Lead (in the case of the crystalline solar cell) and Cadmium (in the case of the CdTe technology) can have hazardous environmental impacts if panels are left unattended or landfilled without processing.
Second, material like Aluminum and glass, which constitutes a significant part of a panel weight, have reuse potential in other applications. The Aluminum frame and glass weight covers up to 80% of the total module weight. Third, future solar module costs can be reduced by extracting and reusing rare earth materials (especially in the case of thin film panels) from the EOL panels. The monetary value of materials apart from Aluminum and glass contributes to
around two-thirds of the panel cost.
The issue of EOL module management is often seen from only one perspective; the EOL modules are often termed as ‘waste.’ Whether to name EOL modules as waste or resource depends on how the industry perceives them. The solar PV industry’s present supply chain is forward-flowing and has little room for circularity. Developing reverse logistics and promoting the reduction of raw material consumption and recycling material from EOL modules can ensure circularity in the supply chain and strengthen the industry’s sustainability. This will allow future EOL modules to be handled as a resource rather than a waste.
Future EOL Module Projections:
International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), in its 2018 report on the end-of-life management of photovoltaic modules, has projected two scenarios. The regular-loss scenario pertains to the module being decommissioned after its expected lifespan of 30 years. The early-loss scenario considers the early conversion of functional PV modules into EOL modules due to operational failures, damage during transportation and installation, initial failures after a short span of plant commissioning, and natural disasters. The projections show that the global EOL module’s volume is expected to rise to 1.7 million tonnes under the regular-loss scenario and 8 million tonnes under the early-loss scenario by 2030. The same is expected to rise to 60 million tonnes under the regular-loss scenario and 78 million tonnes under the early-loss scenario by 2050. India is expected to have about 4.5 million tonnes (regular-loss scenario) to 7.8 million tonnes (early-loss scenario) of EOL modules by 2050.
It is to be noted that the future PV projections reported in the IRENA 2018 report were based on the projected deployment data. The data shows that the world has installed more PV capacity than the projected value, which signals a higher volume of EOL modules in the future than the figures mentioned in the IRENA 2018 report. The following figure shows projected and actual PV capacity and projected accumulation of EOL modules till 2050.
In addition to the IRENA 2018 report, which is prepared using sophisticated statistical methods, a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals the gravity of the situation. In 2020, India had 47.4 GW of PV installed capacity. Considering the weight-to-power ratio of PV panels as 0.1 kg/Watt and the panels’ expected lifespan of 30 years, India is expected to have around 4.74 million tons of EOL modules by the end of 2050. The enormous volume triggers the issue of handling EOL modules in the future and poses a question for the PV industry and policymakers.
The Present Status of EOL Management
The management of EOL modules consists of several mechanical, thermal, and chemical processes to perform delamination, material separation, and purification. Today, most EOL module-treatment plants are constrained at the laboratory or miniature scale due to the limited volume of modules and unattractive economic gains. The cost of recycling PV panels is around 10 times more than dumping them in landfills. Hence, the main challenge in recycling is finding affordable methods that allow the highest recovery level of materials in their purest form.
Apart from recycling and landfilling, people have started repurposing their use as coffee tables or canopy. Manufacturers are also experimenting with refurbishing capabilities, the challenge with which is to find an appropriate end-user at an acceptable cost.
On the policy front, 17 states in the United States of America, Ontario in Canada, and the European Union have enforced policies for collecting, recycling, and recovering EOL modules. The regulations demand producers and distributors to develop reverse logistics for handling and processing EOL modules. For example, European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEE) directive obligates manufacturers and distributors to pay government fees to finance the collection and recycling of electronic waste from end-consumer.
India does not have dedicated legislation to manage EOL photovoltaic modules. The government of India enacted the E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules of 2011 in 2012 and amended them in 2016 and 2018. The amendments ensured that producers and importers set a plan to handle and deliver the e-waste to the recycling centers. The Government of India has included solar PV cells and modules as a part of the draft E-waste rules on 19th May 2022. Earlier, PV modules were not considered e-waste, as the definition of e-waste was only applied to IT, telecom, and consumer products. As a result, the EOL modules either end up in landfill or get processed with lower recovery rates.
Way ahead for India
In India, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is responsible for deploying solar PV systems in the country, whereas the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) oversees the existing E-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules. Moreover, state-level ministries and various government bodies play an essential role in planning and executing government schemes and programmes. Assigning a ministry as a nodal ministry to handle the issue will sensitize government agencies and help synchronize their efforts.
Tracing EOL modules can act as the starting point for building a reverse logistics infrastructure. The government needs to establish monitoring and reporting systems to trace the movement of PV panels from their source to the end consumer. MNRE maintains an Approved List of Models and Manufacturers (ALMM) for quality compliance and to regulate the use of domestic content in module manufacturing. As mentioned earlier, the ministry is also implementing a Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme, which may constitute a significant share of domestically manufactured modules. Module traceability can be improved by making provisions regarding EOL module monitoring and reporting systems in the ALMM and PLI schemes. Similar provisions can be added in the ongoing and future reverse auction tenders. Once the monitoring and reporting systems are in place, the government needs to develop a roadmap to incentivize businesses to incorporate EOL modules in their operations.
The success of the Indian solar story can be attributed to the active participation of private businesses in conjunction with policy support by the government. In recent years, private enterprises have played an essential role in India’s PV deployment strategy. This approach can be continued by designing an industry-led policy framework to develop PV recycling infrastructure within the country.
Businesses from the energy and waste sector need to discover and materialize innovative solutions to the problem. It is to be noted that the problem here is not only about finding affordable recycling methods but also about inventing solutions that lower raw material consumption in the manufacturing process, refurbish the module, and find second-life applications. Industries can be assigned to manage EOL modules based on the data available in monitoring and reporting systems.
The government also needs to ensure prompt and adequate policy support. For example, as a short-term policy measure, the government can set minimum performance criteria for second-life/refurbished panels and allow them to be used in inconsequential applications such as traffic lights, street lighting, garden lighting, etc. This will save the public money (which will otherwise be paid for new PV modules with the latest PV technology) and delay the accumulation of EOL modules.
The gravity of the situation and the government’s commitment to the issue can be exhibited by introducing EOL module handling charges and imposing regulatory mandates. The capital generated can be used to advance industry participation through a dedicated fund. Conventional policy instruments like subsidies and accelerated depreciation can be introduced to boost investors’ confidence.
The best time to make a PV waste management policy is now! The policymakers and PV industry need to solve the issue of EOL modules that are either landfilled or lying at the corner of the PV plant. On-time policy intervention can help avoid future catastrophic consequences arising from mountains of EOL modules.
[This piece was written exclusively for ETEnergyworld by Pratik Joshi, Research Scholar, Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay]
[Image Source: Modified image originally taken from IEA‐PVPS Report T12‐10:2018]
Komoto, K., & Lee, J. S. (2018). End-of-Life Management of Photovoltaic Panels: Trends in PV Module Recycling Technologies. In IEA PVPS Task 12, International Energy Agency Power Systems Programme, Report IEA-PVPS T12 (Vol. 10).
MNRE. (2021). Production Linked Incentive Scheme “National Programme on High Efficiency Solar PV Modules.” 283, 1–9. https://mnre.gov.in/img/documents/uploads/file_f-1619672166750.pdf
Mahmoudi, S., Huda, N., Alavi, Z., Islam, M. T., & Behnia, M. (2019). End-of-life photovoltaic modules: A systematic quantitative literature review. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 146(October 2018), 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2019.03.018
Xu, Y., Li, J., Tan, Q., Peters, A. L., & Yang, C. (2018). Global status of recycling waste solar panels: A review. Waste Management, 75, 450–458.
IEA-PVPS. (2018). Task 12 : End of life management solar photovoltaic panels (Issue June 2016).