India lacks silica to make solar panels: Govt

Government of India on Monday said India does not have any known deposits of silica suitable for producing solar panels.

The statement comes in the wake of concerns of dependency on China for meeting India’s renewable energy needs.

Solar panels are made from thinly cut wafers of crystalline silicon, which is produced by purifying metallurgical grade silica or sand. Silica that is used for PV panels has to be at least 99.99999% pure.

“The metallurgical grade silica required for manufacturing of photovoltaic ingots/ wafers/cells/ modules has not been reported in any part of the country so far,” said Manoj Kumar Jha, minister for mines, coal and parliamentary affairs.

Metallurgical silica is made by removing oxygen from quartz by heating it in an electric arc furnace. This is then exposed to hydrochloric acid and copper, which produce trichlorosilane gas. This vapor is treated with hydrogen to produce silane gas from which molten silicon can be manufactured.

Finally, this crystalline silicon is doped with phosphorous and boron to form a semiconductor, which is then sliced into wafers for use in solar cells.

At present, China dominates the market for solar panels due to its enormous infrastructure for refining silica and producing silica wafers.

However, Jha said India has been trying to encourage local manufacturing of downstream materials, such as solar cells and panels, even though India does not have enough silica (sand) to produce the wafers.

This has been done, he said, by increasing custom tariffs on solar equipment imported into India.

The government has increased basic customs duty on solar inverters and solar lamps from Feb 2, 2021. It has also imposed a safeguard duty on solar cells and modules.

India has also put in clauses in various procurement plans requiring the developers and suppliers to source panels made in India.

There has been widespread concern about India’s complacency in investing to create an ecosystem of solar industries in the country, with fears being expressed that the country could depend on imports in this area just like it does for hydrocarbons.