A Crisis in the Making: Solar Waste

MAY 4, 2022   /  AARVI SINGH

 

At the COP 26 Summit in Glasgow, India had projected to cut its carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030, reduce the carbon intensity of the nation’s economy by less than 45 percent by the end of the decade, and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070.[1] In order to meet these goals, India has been pushing for the increase in production of renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydrogen energy. It should be noted that the country is on the track to meet its COP 26 obligations.[2] Every coin has two sides, however. The unintended consequences of infusing renewable energy into India’s energy production is that India’s output has a persistent problem of the waste generated from these activities. The waste created from renewable energy will not be a problem at present but would rather become a huge problem later. Most sources of renewable energy have a use-cycle of many years after which they will have to be replaced. It is at this point, at the end of the use-cycle, where there is high propensity for waste generation and with  improper disposal of such waste it would make the use of renewable energy obsolete as the aim of using renewable energy was to protect the environment. In India, as per the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, out of the total solid waste collected, which includes e-waste, only about 20 percent is processed and about 80 percent goes to dump sites.[3] The administrative laxity coupled with legislative vacuum is a crisis in making.

In India, the solar energy generation capacity grew from 3 MW in 2009 to 31 GW as of September 2019 and is aimed to reach 100 GW by 2022.[4] But additionally, it should be noted that it is estimated that India could generate more than 34,000 tonnes of solar waste by 2030[5] and about 4.4–7.5 million tonnes of solar waste by 2050.[6] The use-cycle for a solar panel which can be used to generate solar energy is about 25–30 years.[7] This means that although at present there might not be much generation of waste, it can clearly be seen that this will become a huge problem in the future.

Solar waste is mainly generated from the Photovoltaic Modules (PV Modules). There are many different types of PV Modules used but most of them consist of crystalline silicon and other metals such as aluminium, copper, lead, arsenic, silver, etc.[8] At present, India does not have any regulation for the proper handling of solar waste. Solar waste, although generally classified as e-waste, does not fall under the scope of the E-Waste (Management) Rules, 2016.[9] Under the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rule, the level of crystalline silicon and other elements used in the PV modules fall below the threshold level for it to be classified as “hazardous substances.”[10] Additionally, solar panels traditionally use lithium-ion batteries to store solar energy generated.[11] The Batteries (Management and Handling) Rules (2001) will also not apply as they only apply to “lead-acid batteries.”[12] In India, at current, there are no regulations or rules in place to ensure the proper disposal of solar waste.[13] This unplanned and myopic approach will have repercussions in the future.

India has been promoting the use of solar energy by enacting various schemes. For example,  the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy stated that people who install rooftop solar panels can claim benefits and subsidies from the government.[14] The scheme is known as the Grid-Connected Rooftop Solar Scheme (Phase-II) and under this scheme the Ministry is providing “40 [percent] subsidy for the first 3 kW and 20 [percent] subsidy beyond 3 kW and up to 10 kW.”[15] The creation of this scheme to promote solar energy without having appropriate legislation in place to tackle the growing issue of solar waste will only perpetuate the problem. The scheme is to enlarge the green footprints but at the same time the scheme is working in vacuum of law to address the issue that arises subsequent to large scale deployment of rooftop solar modules.

The EU has a very extensive regulatory framework for PV modules and solar waste. In the EU, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive imposes responsibility for disposal of WEEE on the producers or manufacturers.[16] These are known as Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR) which puts the onus on producers to ensure that their products are correctly disposed.[17] The WEEE includes any electronic equipment which is used to generate electricity, i.e., it includes the PV modules found in Solar panels.[18] This means that producers in the EU have an EPR to ensure the proper disposal of the solar panels and PV modules at the end of their use-cycle.[19] Additionally, the EU has a Landfill Directive 1999/31/EC, which aims to “prevent and reduce as much as possible the negative effects on the environment, in particular on surface water, groundwater, soil, air, and human health from the landfilling of waste by introducing stringent technical requirements for waste and landfills.”[20] Many Member States in the EU have also banned dumping of untreated waste into landfills, which includes PV modules.[21] Thus, in conclusion, in the EU the producers have the responsibility to ensure that the PV modules are properly disposed of due to their EPR obligations and some Member States in the EU have ensured that untreated waste, i.e., PV modules, are not directly dumped into landfills.

In United States, at the federal level, e-waste is classified as hazardous and falls under the scope of the Resource Conversion and Recovery Act (RCRA).[22] RCRA was enacted to ensure that waste is properly handled to protect the “environment and human health.”[23] RCRA applies when there are toxic substances found in the products above the prescribed threshold.[24] It was seen that some solar panels contain lead and cadmium above prescribed thresholds, and thus, they will be deemed to be “toxic” and they must be disposed of according to RCRA.[25] RCRA requires producers of hazardous waste comply with “certain management standards to ensure the safe handling of hazardous waste” and also lays down an obligation on producers to track the waste from its “creation to its disposal.”[26]

There are some issues with these regulations such as: 1) it does not cover household waste, which means that household solar panels will be out of the scope of RCRA and can end up in landfills; and 2) some solar panels contain toxic substances, but since they are not at threshold levels, RCRA will not apply. This means that even though solar panels contain toxic substances, they will not be covered under RCRA as long as they are below the threshold.

Additionally, it should be noted that there are state-specific laws regarding e-waste. States can have regulations which are stricter than RCRA but cannot have regulations less stringent than the RCRA.[27] But it should be noted that many current state regulations on e-waste have “their own weaknesses” and are not sufficient to effectively deal with solar waste.[28]

Some states in the US have taken progressive steps to better develop their solar waste management. For example, in California, solar panels are considered as “hazardous waste” and there are regulations which aim to classify old and decommissioned solar panels as “Universal Waste.”[29] Universal Waste is defined as “a category of hazardous waste that does not pose as much of a threat to the environment and human health and is often produced by households and not industry.”[30] It should be noted that Universal Waste cannot be put with the household trash but must rather be sent to facilities where they will be recycled.[31] Another example is Washington, where Manufacturers must “pay for a take-back and recycling program.[32] In this program consumers will be allowed to send old solar panels back to the manufacturer for recycling, “all without any cost to the consumer.”[33]

One can observe that India aims to increase its green footprint but the unintended consequence of solar waste needs to be tackled in line of the prevalent laws in Europe and US. The NGT has also taken suo moto cognisance on this issue after an article released by the organisation known as Down To Earth, stated that India could generate 34,000 tonnes of solar waste by 2030.[34] The aim of this exercise was the check the veracity of this fact and in furtherance of that the NGT has set up a joint committee to give its report.[35] This is a positive step in the right direction as this report could be influential in setting up future regulations regarding solar waste.

Some recommendations that can be considered to address the problem are:

  • EPR obligations: EPR obligations extend a responsibility on manufacturers to collect and properly dispose of waste for the solar panels that they produce. India does have EPR obligations under the E-waste (Management) Rules, 2016. But as PV modules do not fall under the scope of these rules currently, there are no EPR obligations on manufacturers. EPR obligations are extended on manufacturers in the EU and India could adopt a similar approach.
  • Pay and take-back program: This is the program found in Washington, US. India could also adopt a similar program whereby manufacturers can take back decommissioned solar panels at no cost to the consumers. This will help to deal with solar waste created from households.
  • Classification of solar waste as “hazardous waste:” At present, the toxic chemicals found in solar panels are below the thresholds set out in the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules and thus, are not classified as hazardous waste. Although the toxic substances are found in minute quantities in each individual solar panel, when aggregated and left untreated in landfills it can cause serious harm to the environment and human Solar waste should be classified as hazardous waste so that it can be properly managed, processed, and recycled.

Lastly, it should be noted that solar waste is not the only source of pollution that could be generated from renewable energy sources. With regards to wind energy and the use of wind turbines, it is estimated  that in 2050, India will generate about 1.1 million tonnes of waste.[36] The wind turbines have an approximate life cycle of 30-years after which they must be replaced.[37] Different sources of renewable energy can lead to different types of pollution. There is a need for regulation of this waste to ensure proper disposal and handling. The aim of using renewable energy was to reduce pollution and the harm caused to human life caused by using fossil fuels and other non-renewable energy sources. But, if the waste generated from renewable energy sources are not handled properly, the whole aim of using renewable energy would prove to be pointless.

 

Endnotes

[1] India’s COP26 commitments to help with new green technologies: ICRA, Livemint (2022), https://www.livemint.com/industry/energy/indias-cop26-commitments-to-help-with-new-green-technologies-icra-11641385538944.html (last visited Mar. 2, 2022).

[2] India on track to achieve Paris Accord and COP 26 commitments: Yadav, Business-standard.com (2022), https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/india-on-track-to-achieve-paris-accord-and-cop-26-commitments-yadav-122011001462_1.html (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[3] Lok Sabha, Unstarred Question No. 4553- Generation of Waste (2019), http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Generation%20of%20Waste.pdf (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[4] Managing India’s Clean Energy Waste- A Roadmap for the Solar and Storage Industry, (2019), https://www.ceew.in/sites/default/files/AT%20-%20TERI-Cover_Story_Pages%20from%20EF_Oct-Dec%202019_Spread-2.pdf (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[5]Jasleen Bhatti & Swati Sharma, Time’s running out: Is India ready to handle 34,600 tonnes of solar waste by 2030? Downtoearth.org.in (2022), https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/waste/time-s-running-out-is-india-ready-to-handle-34-600-tonnes-of-solar-waste-by-2030–81104#:~:text=India%20does%20not%20have%20a,fold%20by%20the%20next%20decade (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[6] International Renewable Energy Agency, End of Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels, (2022), https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2016/IRENA_IEAPVPS_End-of-Life_Solar_PV_Panels_2016.pdf (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[7] Supra note 4.

[8] PV Waste Management In India: Comparative Analyses of State of Play & Recommendations, https://nsefi.in/assets/press_releases/pvwaster.pdf (2022).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] PTI, Households free to install rooftop solar by any vendor under govt scheme: MNRE, The Economic Times (2022), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/renewables/households-free-to-install-rooftop-solar-by-any-vendor-under-govt-scheme-mnre/articleshow/89036067.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[15] MNRE issues advisory for the general public on rooftop solar scheme, Pib.gov.in (2021), https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1779707 (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[16] Supra note 8.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Supra note 8.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Meghan McElligott, A Framework for Responsible Solar Panel Waste Management in the United States, 5 ONE J 475 (2020).

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Supra note 8.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] NGT, Application is registered as Suo Motu Case based on an article published in Down to Earth Magazine, Original Application No. 112/2022, available at https://images.assettype.com/barandbench/2022-02/d7a0b5c9-8f96-48fe-9538-814703858100/NGT___on_its_own_motion___order_dated_Feb_14.pdf.

[35] Id.

[36] Amit Kumar & Mahesh K. Jat, Wind energy in India – Waste generation and end-of-life management for sustainability (2021), https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354021380_Wind_energy_in_India_-_Waste_generation_and_end-of-life_management_for_sustainability (last visited Mar. 3, 2022).

[37] Id.

 

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