How India can create a circular economy for renewables

How India can create a circular economy for renewables

To be energy secure, India will need to ensure a circular economy for its clean energy technologies and supply chains. Last year, the Ministry of Mines identified 30 minerals, such as silicon, lithium, cobalt and copper, as critical for India, necessitating concerted efforts to ensure access to these minerals. Most of the minerals in this list are predominantly used in renewable energy technologies like solar modules and wind turbines. Circular economy strategies, such as reusing products or their components and recovering materials from waste products, are powerful tools to mitigate supply risks and support an unimpeded clean energy transition.

A recent study by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) estimates that India's installed solar capacity as of FY2023 has already generated about 100 kilotonnes of waste, which will increase to 340 kilotonnes by 2030. This waste will likely contain around 252 kilotonnes of glass, 32 kilotonnes of aluminium, 10 kilotonnes of silicon and 12-18 tonnes of silver. Given that at least 75 per cent of the global manufacturing capacity of various stages of the solar value chain is currently concentrated in a few geographies, recovery of materials from waste solar modules can help build local supply chains. Besides waste recycling, reduce and reuse are potential strategies for making a resilient domestic industry for renewables. For instance, new variants of solar cells, such as silicon wafer-based passive emitter rear contact (PERC) cells, are witnessing a reduced silver content. Similarly, research is underway to reduce the consumption of rare earth elements in wind turbines. However, the scalability of these solutions is restrained by their stability and performance. Hence, while these innovations mature, India must enhance its recycling capabilities to reduce its reliance on critical minerals and insulate from associated supply chain vulnerabilities.

However, several technological and market barriers constrain the large-scale uptake of circular strategies. Here are our three recommendations to accelerate the adoption of a circular economy in the Indian renewables industry.

First, policymakers should set clear mandates and provide signals to nudge waste recycling from renewables. Regulatory targets for waste collection, recycling, and reuse of individual materials will help create the necessary infrastructure and expedite technological innovations for waste management. For instance, the Electronic Waste (Management) Rules 2022 govern the management of waste solar cells and modules. However, manufacturers and recyclers await detailed implementation guidelines to operationalise waste management initiatives. Policymakers can also consider integrating circular strategies into the standard operating procedures to create a demand for a circular economy. One strategy could be to introduce more robust quality control in domestic projects. Poor quality modules will lead to a faster degradation and premature end of life. Therefore, enforcing stronger quality standards will keep products longer in use thereby enhancing resource utilisation.

Second, the private sector and academia must collaborate and accelerate research, development, and demonstration of efficient recycling technologies. For example, solar module recycling technologies should aim to recover all individual materials present in them with high purity levels to allow reuse. Successful collaborations include the IIT Madras Research Park and the Technology Research Park at IIT Hyderabad. More such initiatives are needed. In parallel, the renewables industry should also focus on integrating circular strategies during the product design stage, such as 'design for disassembly', 'design for reuse' and 'design for recycling' to support recycling. Granular data on waste generation and technology evolution will also influence the development of recycling technologies. Hence, the private sector must work closely with the technology innovators to guide the development of efficient recycling technologies for new renewable technologies.

Finally, the private sector must design innovative market mechanisms to make recycling economically viable. Both solar modules and wind turbines have a long useful life of around 25 to 30 years, respectively, which will influence waste management plans due to risks related to business solvency at the time of waste generation. Hence, manufacturers must carefully deliberate on building the cost for waste management to meet the requirements of today and in the future when the volumes surge. Further, as some renewable waste, such as solar modules, will be distributed in various end-uses, manufacturers must also design efficient reverse logistics mechanisms to bring back the waste from the consumers. Companies can join efforts to aggregate their waste via distributed collection centres to achieve a critical mass, bringing down the reverse logistics cost and improving recycling economics.

As India gears up for manufacturing and deploying renewables at an unprecedented rate to reach net zero emissions by 2070, concerted actions are needed from all stakeholders to accelerate the adoption of circular strategies.

Akanksha Tyagi is a Programme Lead and Ajinkya Kale is a Research Analyst at CEEW. Views are personal.

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