Clean energy should use the battery of a circular economy
An efficient waste management ecosystem is crucial to manage the huge waste generated in India’s new energy push.
- According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) — an intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future — the cumulative waste generated by India’s total installed solar capacity could be as high as 325 kilotonnes by 2030.
- A consulting firm, JMK Research and Analytics, estimates that the market for battery recycling will be around 23 Gigawatt hours (GWh) by 2030.
- A study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) has estimated that India would need over 5,630 GW of solar and 1,792 GW of wind energy to achieve its net-zero target in the year 2070.
- Studies show that the leaching of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium from solar photovoltaic modules could increase by 90% and 40%, respectively, under acidic conditions.
- The Indian renewable energy industry has a complex structure that comprises various manufacturers, assemblers, importers and distributors.
- Currently, in the absence of any regulation, landfilling is the cheapest and most common practice to manage renewable energy waste. However, it is not environmentally sustainable. All clean energy technologies thrive on metals and non-metals with different levels of toxicity.
- Further, burning the polymeric encapsulant layer in solar photovoltaic modules releases toxic gases such as sulphur dioxide and some volatile organic compounds.
- Substandard components generate considerable waste due to early life damage that is often irreplaceable, and the components often have to be discarded.
- We ought to remember that the majority of India’s recycling sector is informal and workers have to work in unsafe environments without standardised wages.
Steps to nurture a circular economy in the Indian renewable energy industry
- First, policymakers should revise existing electronic waste management rules to bring various clean energy components under their ambit.
- Second, dumping and burning of different components should be banned.
- Third, the renewable energy industry should invest in the research and development of recycling technologies.
- Recycling is a multistep process that includes dismantling, disassembly, and extraction.
- Industries should also explore technology transfers with global recycling firms for establishing domestic waste recycling facilities.
- Fourth, there has to be a creation of innovative financing routes for waste management.
- Fifth, there needs to be an improvement in product design and quality.
- Renewable energy component manufacturers should find substitutes for toxic metals such as cadmium and lead used in their products and simplify product designs to reduce recycling steps.
- Sixth, the Union and State governments should set stringent quality control standards for components used in their tenders.
- The renewable energy recycling ecosystem has a complex structure where there are multiple actors involved, but it would be an integral part of our journey toward a sustainable future.
- Beyond sustainability, it would also offer quality employment opportunities for the future generations as new jobs would be created across the entire value chain of waste management and recycling.
- Developing an efficient renewable energy waste management and circular ecosystem is imperative rather than a choice. We can ignore this, but only at our own peril.
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