“Today, when the energy sources and excesses of our industrial age have put our planet in peril, we must turn to the sun to power our future,” these words of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi resonated among the 122 countries addressed at the International Solar Alliance (ISA) in Paris (TOI, 2015) in November, 2015. India thus committed itself to become the ‘sons of the Sun’- notwithstanding a paradigm shift in the nation’s solar energy sector and its revised goals.
However, back home, a cursory analysis of the ambitious solar programme of India reveals a hollow and disappointing picture. The trajectory of India’s solar mission, especially in rooftop solar is dismally low (Geography and You, 2017). But, even greater is the imminent threat of flooding the country with a huge environmental burden – the volume of which we haven’t even begun to comprehend, let alone compute. India is fast emerging as the largest market of low cost and poor quality solar photovoltaics (PV) modules – a compounding hazardous waste, especially threatening in the absence of adequate quality control. It is no wonder, therefore that a rush for cheap solar PV modules is converting India into a dumping ground of low efficiency solar products.
Solar power in India: Achievements under the scanner
India has committed to increase its share of non-fossil energy to 40 per cent by 2030 with an idea to sustain its economic growth threatened by the adverse impact of climate change. In pursuance to achieve this vision, a policy framework namely National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC); was adopted which identified eight missions out of which two – National Solar Mission and National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency; were focused for energy efficient economic development. Subsequently, in 2009 Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) was launched with a target to enhance solar power production capacity up to 20 Giga Watt (GW) in three phases by 2022 (JNNSM Report). In 2015, the incumbent Indian government took an ambitious decision in her budget to revise the target to 100 GW (PIB, 2015). These efforts of the government resulted in a dramatic fall in solar power tariff from Rs 18 per unit to Rs 2.44 per unit, which is being projected as major achievement of the solar mission in India.
A detailed analysis of the data reveals that this fall in the solar power tariff was not the result of any technological improvement that led to enhanced conversion efficiency but instead it was due to the use of cheaper imported solar cells and modules. According to a report in The Economic Times (Chandrasekaran, 2017) between April 2016 and January 2017, solar equipment amounting to 2.17 billion USD were imported that was 39 per cent higher than previous year for the same period. China remained a dominant exporter (Fig 1) with a market share of 83 per cent worth 1.9 billion USD during 2015-16 (Ramesh, 2016). The Indian import-dependant market for solar energy equipment is estimated to grow further as the share of renewable energy is expected to be 50 per cent in around next 10 years (Fig. 2). However, the poor quality of imported PV panels would result in a much shorter lifespan lowering the actual power produced much below the installed capacity of the nation.
Installed capacity is the maximum output that can be extracted from a plant while the capacity utilisation factor (CUF) is the real output of the plant as compared to the plant’s theoretical maximum output. India’s CUF of solar power plants is around 20 per cent (Rosencranz and Puri, 2017). Thus, even if 100 GW is achieved as installed capacity we will be utilising only about 20 GW output. Will this make us energy secure? With the uncertain life span of China-made solar PV modules, the solar mission looks fairly non-sustainable.
Furthermore, sustainability of low solar power tariff is posing serious challenges due to increase in production cost. According to a report in Financial Times, the Chairman of Achme Solar, Manoj Kumar Upadhyaya who entered in an agreement to set up a 200 MW facility in Bhadala, Rajasthan at the rate of INR 2.44 per unit later regretted his decision due to rising inflation (Stacey, 2017). In this report, Upadhyaya has been quoted saying “When we made our bid, we factored in a price for every solar panel of 30 cents per watt of power, but since then it has risen to around 35 cents. Our bid works at 30 cents. While the tax on a solar panel is only 5 per cent, that of other materials we use, such as steel or copper inverters, has gone up to 18 per cent,” He reportedly explained the price rise in the backdrop of Goods and Services Tax (GST).
Low efficiency playing spoilsport
Efficiency of solar modules has been a major concern in Indian solar market. The efficiency of a solar module is measured in terms of amount of electricity generated from the amount of solar radiation (sunlight) falling on per square m area of the solar module. For instance, if the efficiency of a solar panel with area 2 sq m is 40 per cent and amount of solar radiation falling on this panel is 1000W/sq m, then the panel is capable of producing 800W (1000 x 40 per cent x 2). If sun’s energy is trapped for five hours, then this panel will produce 4000 WH (800 x 5) or 4kWh. Higher the efficiency, higher would be the amount of solar energy generated per unit area. It is noticed that under the pressure of low cost and time, the solar project developers are buying low quality equipment with low efficiency (16-22 per cent) that is adversely impacting the power generation. Even used solar modules from China are being imported and sold at discount price in Indian market with a year’s warranty (Utpal Bhaskar, 2017a & b).
Efficiency validation of solar modules is another major concern in India. Tests for solar efficiency are carried out globally by three major recognised centers—National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL-USA), National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST-Japan) and Physikalisch Technische Bundesanstalt (PTBGermany). Recently, National Physical Laboratory of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-NPL) established a national facility to carry out the efficiency validation of solar cells (Kumar and Aswal, 2016). The process of validation of efficiency of solar energy units requires calibration of various parameters such as light source, temperature sensors, voltage meter and activated area of the solar energy unit. The CSIR-NPL set out to measure fill factor, short circuit current, open circuit voltage and the efficiency of solar cells employing the use of a solar simulator, which provides illumination approximating natural sunlight (CSIR-NPL, 2017). The watt peak (WP) value under standard test conditions (STC) is of foremost importance to players involved with solar energy. According to NPL test findings, the efficiency of solar cells used at present is declining by 2 per cent or more annually. According to a rough estimate, each 1 per cent uncertainty in calculations of peak power amounts to a loss of about INR 5,000 crores in India, provided the rate of 20 per cent efficiency at INR 100 per WP is maintained. This represents a fully efficient system. Given that these solar cells come with a warranty period of 25 years, a drop in efficiency by even 2 per cent could mean massive financial losses that would increase exponentially within a few years.
Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has issued mandates for quality certification, standards and testing for grid-connected rooftop solar PV systems/power plants. Even though MNRE has put in place an efficient and rigorous monitoring mechanism, adherence to these standards is not satisfactory in the Indian solar market. India has also joined a growing list of countries targeting Chinese manufacturers, and is looking closely at anti-dumping duties in the lines of the US, European Union and Turkey. But looking at the current market scenario import of low quality solar modules in India continues unabated.
The existing rules on e-waste management—Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Act, 2016; only address household electronics but is silent on management of used components of PV panels (Hazardous Act, 2016). According to a report published in Financial Express, the lacuna also exists in Japan and USA but UK and Germany have successfully addressed this issue by creating a separate category of PV panels under e waste with specific directions for its collection, treatment and recycling (Shardul and Agarwal 2017).
Though the solar energy technology generates green and clean energy, the components used in solar energy modules are highly hazardous and non-biodegradable. Even if we disengage from the better battery debate, the PV panel remains under scrutiny. The disposal of PV panels, a lesser known evil, is a task that needs scientific intervention to prevent environment pollution. The toxic chemicals in solar panels include cadmium telluride, copper indium selenide, cadmium gallium (di)selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, lead, polyvinyl fluoride and crystalline silicon. Additionally, silicon tetrachloride, a byproduct of producing crystalline silicon, is extremely toxic (Nguyen, 2017). These chemicals are a serious health and environment hazard as they adversely affect human, cattle and other living organisms as well.
As low cost solar products become the objective, Indian users opt for low efficiency and even used solar modules with only a year’s warranty. A report of International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published in the Financial Express has estimated that India would be producing 78 million tonnes of solar (SOLAR) e-waste by 2050 (Shardul, and Agarwal, 2017).
Although, The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) notified the E-Waste Management Rules, 2016, however, it does not include proper guidelines for disposal of solar cells. Even, Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016 have no details specified regarding solar cells and modules. Therefore, in the light of fast growing solar power generation, scientific disposal of the used solar products is the big concern. In the years to come, the government would have to increase expenditure many times over on public health and environment protection than the amount it is saving today by not incentivizing high efficient solar products through subsidies and/ or direct purchase.
The current scenario of India’s solar market is neither in sync with the vision of ISA nor on the path of national aspirations. There is an urgent need to put an efficient and effective system in place to ensure validation/calibration of indigenous and imported solar modules and ensure its strict enforcement. The focus should be on higher efficiency, better quality and longer life span of the solar modules. Furthermore, anti dumping laws must be enforced strictly besides making proper arrangement for scientific disposal of the waste generated from expired solar modules.
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Bhaskar, U., 2017b. Used Chinese solar panels set off quality fears. live Mint, September, 25. Available at: https://goo.gl/Cw8Wp2
Chandrasekaran, K., 2017.China is biggest exporter of solar equipment to India with 87 per cent market share, Economic Times, April, 30. Available at: https://goo.gl/amS6k9
CSIR-NPL, 2017. Efficiency Measurement of Organic Solar Cells. Available at: https://goo.gl/66UV2L
Geography and You, 2017. Solar Rooftop Installation: Not Quite off the Ground. Available at: https://www.geographyandyou.com/science/energy/solar-rooftop-installations/
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