After leading green energy revolution, why India must power-up solar waste management

Growing population and a rapidly rising demand for electricity in both rural and urban areas, and across sectors, has put an extreme pressure on the ecology. With one of the lowest per-capita electricity consumption and one of the largest solar generation targets, India is paving the way forward to bring sustainable and clean electricity to millions. The tropical country has a vision of reducing its emissions intensity by enhancing the share of renewables in its energy mix. The real thrust on clean energy came with the launch of the National Solar Mission in 2010. As part of the mission, over 1,600MW of grid connected systems and 253MW off-grid systems were installed and commissioned during 2010-2013, during the phase 1 (see chart). The phase 2 of this mission will steer the pumping of 800MW of off-grid systems, primarily in rural areas. In the 2015 Union Budget, Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased the targets of the National Solar Mission 2010 fivefold. The plan of scaling up generation targets from 20GW to 100GW (60% through large and medium scale solar projects, and 40% through rooftop solar projects) by 2022 is the largest ever clean energy target set by any developing country. So far, India has achieved over 8,000MW of grid connected solar power. Currently, India is at the fourth place on the global largest solar power generators’ leader board. These statistics are definitely a ladder to one’s cognitive abilities for computation of volumes of panels, batteries and other associated electrical and electronic components that are being pumped to meet clean energy targets.

The missing piece

It is now time to address the elephant in the room. A 2016 report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects India as the producer of over 78 million tonnes of solar e-waste by 2050. While solar technologies enable us to generate enormous amounts of green energy, the components used for generating electricity are themselves not biodegradable. Hence, proper handling of components, after their useful life is over, becomes imperative. With exponentially ramping up of solar power generation, how would we address the prospect of used panels inundating landfills and leaching toxic waste into the environment?

India’s existing rules document—E-Waste Management Rules, 2016—clarifies on the roles and responsibilities of the key stakeholders involved in the e-waste value chain. This is the set of rules referred to in most of the solar power tenders for solar projects in India. However, it does not specifically mention about the issue of management of used components of solar power systems—it only addresses household electronics and not PV panels. Advanced markets like Japan and the growing market of the US face challenges similar to that of India, with no specific regulation for the solar waste generated in these countries, as PV panels are still not identified by the law for specific recycling and regulation. However, in the UK and Germany, its collection, treatment and recycling have been reflected in the respective implementation of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. This has led to the creation of a separate category for PV panels. Germany has also established a collective producer responsibility system for end-of-life management of business-to-consumer PV panels.

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