Where does the debris of the solar boom go?

Although dumping e-waste is a crime as per the Electronic Waste (Management) Rules 2022, nearly 90% of such waste, including scrapped solar panels, ends up in landfills.
Last Updated : 26 May 2024, 02:59 IST
Last Updated : 26 May 2024, 02:59 IST

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Hubballi: Every fortnight, Salman* (29), with three of his friends, visits the dump yards and landfills in Hubballi hoping to find a “jackpot”. Unlike other ragpickers who keep an eye out for bottles and plastic products, Salman looks for e-waste. In these discards, he finds precious and semi-precious materials such as silver, gold, platinum, palladium, aluminium and copper.

During one such expedition a year and a half ago, Salman stumbled upon a chemical solution that spread over his right palm. Since then, his palm has lost sensation and has itchy blisters.

“Doctors have given ointment and medicines. They say the blisters are due to a chemical reaction,” says Salman. He continues to collect e-waste, especially out-of-use solar photovoltaic (PV) panels with his bare hands. Although they are aware of the risks, they continue collecting e-waste because of the financial benefits. By extracting aluminium, glass, silver and other metals Salman and his friends can earn Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 per panel.

Although dumping e-waste is a crime as per the Electronic Waste (Management) Rules 2022, nearly 90% of such waste, including scrapped solar panels, ends up in landfills. This waste is generally handled unscientifically by untrained scrap dealers. In fact, a study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) estimates that India will produce 340 kilotonnes of solar waste by 2030 with its current installed capacity. If India is to meet its renewable energy goals, solar waste would see a six-fold rise — to the tune of 600 kilotonnes. 

The Central Pollution Control Board has identified mobile phones, laptops, television sets, refrigerators, air conditioners and 106 types of electrical and electronic equipment as e-waste. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels were only recently included in the list. 

In 2022, the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) amended the E-Waste (Management) Rules to include solar cells and modules in the e-waste ambit.

Undoubtedly electricity generated through solar PV panels, compared to coal-based power generation plants, is greener as it involves a lighter carbon footprint and lowered emissions. However, experts fear that solar energy could also pose problems in the future if worn-out and discarded panels are not disposed of scientifically. 

Apart from metals the panels also contain toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, asbestos and nickel that can affect human health and the environment through leaching.

India is ranked third globally in solar power generation and is vying to be a solar superpower in the next few decades. Under the renewables segment, solar accounts for the lion's share of total energy.

In the last decade alone, the country’s solar energy production has increased nearly 28 times. From 2.63 gigawatts in 2014, the installed capacity of solar power in India increased to 73.32 gigawatts by 2023.

By 2030, India plans to harvest 292 GW and increase it to 1,700 GW of installed solar capacity by 2050. By 2070, the country plans to install 5,600 GW of solar capacity to meet its ambitious goal of net-zero carbon emissions in generating power. 

To meet this goal, the Pradhan Mantri Suryodaya Yojana was launched in 2024, aiming to install PV modules on the rooftops of one crore households in the country. Under the project, India plans to set up 39 new mega solar power projects, like the one in Pavagada in Karnataka. Despite such ambitious goals, there remains little recourse in handling solar waste.

Solar panels have an average lifespan of 20-30 years which means that the ground-mounted panels installed more than a decade ago are expected to be approaching the end of their life soon. “Yet, India does not have a robust recycling framework to enable the recycling and repurposing of solar PV waste at the moment,” says Anjali Taneja, senior policy specialist at the Bengaluru-based Centre for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP). 

Experts say currently 3% of India’s e-waste is generated from solar panels. However, this is expected to rise further as the solar panel ‘boom’, which started in 2009 is expected to generate e-waste as the panels reach the end of their life. 

According to research conducted by CSTEP, by the year 2050, India is expected to generate an estimated 4.5 million tonnes of solar PV waste from the 64 GW of ground-mounted solar PV cells.

Delhi-based waste management expert Swati Singh Sambyal says India has yet to realise the danger that e-waste poses to humans and the environment. In the absence of a system to get solar waste back to processing units, workers from the unorganised sector continue to collect and dispose of solar waste hazardously. 


Far from processing solar waste, India is yet to effectively manage e-waste. India is the third largest producer of e-waste after China and the United States of America, according to the UN Global E-waste Monitor. 

The Union government in a written response in the Parliament said that a majority of e-waste generated in the country does not reach the processing unit. Only 5.27 lakh tonnes of e-waste is processed against the 16.01 lakh tonnes of e-waste generated in 2021-22. 

The 2022 Act “fixes” responsibilities on producers, central and state pollution control boards, urban local bodies and other government agencies.

Manufacturers are mandated to repurpose and recycle solar and other e-waste within 180 days of collection. However, the exorbitant cost of recycling e-waste and extracting refurbished raw materials is resulting in these stakeholders dumping them on barren lands. Incentives for producers to buy back their products are also non-existent. 

Both industry insiders and pollution control board officials admit that adherence to this rule is quite poor on the ground.


“We are willing to buy back our products. However, there are several bottlenecks in this process,” a senior executive working with a Haryana-based solar PV cell manufacturer says. 

Several manufacturers are more than willing to follow the guidelines set by the Union government as recycled and refurbished solar panels reduce import charges and increase the profit margin, he adds. 

While companies can maintain profits and create awareness among direct buyers to return the panels at the end of the panel’s life, tracking down products in other cases poses a challenge. High transportation costs and lack of incentives on the customer end also result in poor solar waste management. 

Here, action from urban local bodies and gram panchayats to collect hazardous e-waste and hand it over to authorised e-waste refurbishers or recyclers can help bridge the gap.    

According to a report prepared by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), five states —  Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – which house eight of India’s 10 largest solar parks, will contribute to two-thirds of the solar waste in the next five years.

A majority of the cities and rural areas, where the solar-waste is generated, do not have proper collection centres.

Even Indore, India’s cleanest city for the last seven years as per the Union government’s Swachh Survekshan survey, does not have a proper mechanism to collect e-waste and solar waste. Media reports say nearly 90% of e-waste generated in Indore ends up in landfills and dump yards.

Indore Regional Pollution Control Board Regional Officer S N Dwivedi says that there is no exclusive door-to-door collection of e-waste in the city.

“The general solid waste collectors collect e-waste. We have two e-waste processing units where the majority of the e-waste is recycled, while the rest goes to landfills,” he says.

As per the Central Pollution Control Board, 20 states in India have nearly 2,759 e-waste collection centres. However, authorised e-waste collectors complain that they receive hardly 30% of the total e-waste generated.

Ramesh Raj, CEO of E-Pragathi, a Tumakuru-based collection centre authorised to collect e-waste from Bengaluru, says informal players continue to thrive in the e-waste collection business as guidelines are not being followed strictly.

“A city like Bengaluru generates large quantities of e-waste. However, we do not have the financial resources to send vehicles to collect the e-waste from every ward. The government had assured us that it would provide segregated e-waste for processing and scientific disposal. However, we are getting hardly 10% to 20% of our installed processing capacity,” he says. 

Unscientific management 

Unscientific management of solar e-waste is hurting India in two ways. The toxic waste generated by modules is polluting the air, water and soil. On the other hand, the non-utilisation of refurbished metal and silica is increasing the cost of production of solar PV units.

A majority of solar PV modules produced in India use crystallised silicon (C-Si) and cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film modules technology. In both these technologies, one can recover nearly 90% of the raw materials. However, as solar PV modules are informally handled only about 20% of raw materials can be effectively recovered. 

The discarded modules include minerals such as silicon, copper, tellurium, and cadmium, which have been classified as critical minerals for India.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, in its report, says that the global market value of raw materials recovered from solar panels could reach $450 million by 2030.

Experts say that at present, there are no concrete measures put in place by either the government or private players.

Currently, a majority of raw materials in the manufacturing of solar PV modules are imported. Neeraj Kuldeep, a senior programme lead at CEEW, says India’s dependency on foreign countries can vastly reduce if we shift from a linear to a circular economy approach.

At present, India has limited in-house technology for recycling solar panels. There is also a lack of infrastructure to handle e-waste. Kuldeep suggests that the government focus on research and development for cost-effective recycling.

The CEEW report also suggests that collection centres be built closer to the solar power plants and recyclers or dismantlers be situated near industrial or manufacturing areas.

“What is the point in having a collection centre in say Bengaluru or Mysuru when the solar PV waste is generated in Pavagada? There should be minimum transportation of discarded panels,” says Kuldeep.

Even in Karnataka, which has a total solar PV installed capacity of 8,087 MW as of April 2024, there are several gaps in waste management.

With the recently introduced Karnataka Renewable Energy Policy 2022-2027, the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board projects the generation of 0.5 million tonnes of PV waste by 2050.

Balachandra H C, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board Member Secretary, says e-waste collection is in its nascent stage and that there are efforts to streamline the process in Karnataka. “The waste generated at solar power plants is being scientifically managed. The issue is with marginal farmers who use solar PV units for pump sets and discard them at dump yards. We are working on ensuring the manufacturer buyback such waste and dismantle them as per the guidelines,” he says. 

According to the 2022 Amendment, the state and central pollution control boards have to submit an annual report related to e-waste to the central government within a month after the end of the fiscal year. However, the central board has not uploaded its annual report since 2021, reflecting a lack of concern.

Above all, there is a lack of awareness among the public regarding the health hazards that the solar waste can cause.

*Name has been changed on request

Published 26 May 2024, 02:59 IST

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