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Korea's battle with spent solar panels heats up

Hundreds of photovoltaic panels cover swaths of Baeksu village near salt fields in Yeonggwang County, South Jeolla Province. Korea Times file
Hundreds of photovoltaic panels cover swaths of Baeksu village near salt fields in Yeonggwang County, South Jeolla Province. Korea Times file

By Ko Dong-hwan

The exponential growth of photovoltaic (PV) systems across the world once raised hopes that a mitigated use of fossil fuel in power generation industries would slash the carbon footprint and hold off rampant global warming. But the glowing outlook was later dimmed by a serious concern ― what will we do with all the PV panels once they expire?

PV panels, by the end of 2019, supplied about 3 percent of the world's electricity consumption, with global capacity reaching 633 gigawatts. With China, the European Union, the United States and Japan shining most brightly, some 60 countries as of 2019 reached a cumulative PV capacity of more than one megawatt.

The ever-increasing penetration of PV systems now poses a new problem of how to recycle them. The energy-intensive, environmentally toxic chemical products, unless recycled, will have to be incinerated or buried under the earth, polluting the atmosphere and land that some already describe as beyond repair.

In Korea, where by the end of 2019 PV systems produced the world's ninth-most electricity with over 11,000 megawatts (9,287 from utility-scale), recycling solar panels is now driven by a few pioneers in the private sector as well as state researchers and the central government. The action was spurred after the Korea Environment Institute's 2018 statistic report showing that spent PV panels would increase from 198 tons in 2019 to more than 9,600 in 2023 and reach more than 16,000 in 2028.

The Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) in Daejeon, one of the country's state-funded researchers geared towards carbon neutralization and energy transition from fossil fuel to alternatives like hydrogen, has been working with the problem of recycling the elements of PV panels, from aluminum to glass, silicon, copper and lead.

"The most environmentally hazardous ingredient is lead, although there is only so much that's even below the lowest amount (three milligrams per liter or less) legally required for proper waste treatment," Lee Jin-seok from KIER's Energy Conversion and Storage Materials Laboratory told the Korea Times.

Lead can be found on the surface of solar ribbon, a copper conductor coated with a tin-lead alloy and installed directly on to silicon crystals to interconnect solar cells inside the panel. Lee said lead can be extracted after collecting the solar ribbons from spent panels.

Lee's lab also found ways to recycle aluminum and glass, which separate the matter from the panels physically (or thermally for glass) to reuse them as ingredients for new aluminum alloys or plate glass. For silicon and copper, solar cells and solar ribbons are first retrieved and the materials are chemically separated to be recycled for new materials or parts for PV system manufacturing.

An electrician connects PV panels. GETTYIMAGESBANK
An electrician connects PV panels. GETTYIMAGESBANK

In Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Chungbuk Technopark, a joint research and development facility combining industries, schools, researchers and government, has also been working on the issue. Park Byung-wook, chief of the energy industry department from the facility's Next-Generation Energy Center, confirmed with the Korea Times that the recycling process for spent PV panels was largely the same as what KIER had found.

"We separate lead, glass, aluminum, silicon, coppers and tin from the panels and send each material to different recycling firms," Park said.

Line Tech Solar, a private firm in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, specializes in deconstructing aged PV panels and "repowering" them ― replacing old components with new ones to extend their lifespan. The company repowers modules or inverters of panels that have operated for 10 years or longer and whose power efficiency is reduced by 20 percent or more.

The real merit of repowering is in reviving old PV panels while recycling their hardware components ― which reduces financial costs and work time.

"We were part of the advisory group for Chungbuk Technopark's PV panel recycling division when the facility was completed in 2003," Line Tech Solar CEO Kang Jung-il told the Korea Times. The company, he said, would introduce its own PV panel recycling pipeline in 2021. The company has been exporting collected PV modules from deconstructed panels.

At government level, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy launched a project to complete a PV panel recycling facility in Jincheon County in North Chungcheong Province in 2021. The facility will be able to recycle 3,600 tons of PV panels a year.

"The new facility will break down the panels into separate components like frames, junction boxes, back sheets and glass to extract from them silver, silicon, copper, glass and tin for recycling," Cho Soo-yeon, an official from the ministry's New and Renewable Energy Policy Bureau, told the Korea Times. "The whole extraction processing leaves no by-products except the extracts, so there are no environmental hazards."


Looming battle

With the increasing reliance on PV systems, Korea's PV panel recycling capacity raises concerns it must muscle up sooner or later to prevent spent panels from being dumped at massive environmental cost.

So far, the country has not been burdened with a worrying load of spent panels. But pioneering firms, researchers and the central government have begun improving the infrastructure and designing new laws to deal with the looming battle.

"Right now, demand on recycling the panels is low because of COVID-19's impact on global markets, but the influx of panels from China, Australia and the Europe will increase in future, lowering their rates for export," Kang said. "With an increasing number of spent PV panels to be recycled, sufficient governmental and private facilities are required."

Lee also warned that the country would have "a consistently growing amount of spent PV panels" and that the "nurturing of PV recycling industry must begin now."

The country's PV panel recycling industry is still at its beginning phase, according to Park. While many local firms have been interested in the industry, only one ― in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province ― is completely equipped for the operation and registered under the Ministry of Environment as a certified PV panel recycler as of August this year. Built in 2019, the facility recycles 1,000 tons of spent panels a year.

"With the upcoming 3,600 ton-capacity recycling facility in Jincheon and another private facility being built, the country will have increased recycling capacity," Park said.

Employees from Line Tech Solar deconstruct aged photovoltaic panels from a 400kW-capacity PV system farm in Jangheung, South Jeolla Province, in January 2020. Courtesy of Line Tech Solar
Employees from Line Tech Solar deconstruct aged photovoltaic panels from a 400kW-capacity PV system farm in Jangheung, South Jeolla Province, in January 2020. Courtesy of Line Tech Solar

While recycling facilities take spent PV panels from various consumers, a law to take effect in 2023 targets the panels' producers.

In August 2019, the Korea Photovoltaic Industry Association (KOPIA), the energy ministry and the environment ministry signed an innovative memorandum of understanding to make it mandatory for PV panel producers to recycle their products under extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations.

"PV systems started rapidly increasing in Korea from mid-2000s, and, considering their average lifespan of 20 to 30 years, we expect to see spent PV panels seriously piling up from 2023," KOPIA official Park Moon-soo told the Korea Times.

The tripartite agreement placed spent PV panels under EPR because up to 90 percent of the hardware is recyclable, including tempered glass and aluminum with a weight percentage of 68 and 16, respectively. Four materials used for containers like synthetic resins or aluminum cans and 39 mass-produced items like tires and fluorescent lights are already under the Korean EPR.

The agreement also boosted national research into PV panel recycling technologies and how to collect spent panels nationwide more systemically.

"EPR has already been proven effective in Korea with electronic appliances," said Park from KOPIA. "Considering the uniqueness of PV panels in that they produce electricity rather than consume it, EPR can lay down effective ground rules for recycling the panels."


Hundreds of photovoltaic panels cover swaths of Baeksu village near salt fields in Yeonggwang County, South Jeolla Province. Korea Times file
Hundreds of photovoltaic panels cover swaths of Baeksu village near salt fields in Yeonggwang County, South Jeolla Province. Korea Times file

By Ko Dong-hwan

The exponential growth of photovoltaic (PV) systems across the world once raised hopes that a mitigated use of fossil fuel in power generation industries would slash the carbon footprint and hold off rampant global warming. But the glowing outlook was later dimmed by a serious concern ― what will we do with all the PV panels once they expire?

PV panels, by the end of 2019, supplied about 3 percent of the world's electricity consumption, with global capacity reaching 633 gigawatts. With China, the European Union, the United States and Japan shining most brightly, some 60 countries as of 2019 reached a cumulative PV capacity of more than one megawatt.

The ever-increasing penetration of PV systems now poses a new problem of how to recycle them. The energy-intensive, environmentally toxic chemical products, unless recycled, will have to be incinerated or buried under the earth, polluting the atmosphere and land that some already describe as beyond repair.

In Korea, where by the end of 2019 PV systems produced the world's ninth-most electricity with over 11,000 megawatts (9,287 from utility-scale), recycling solar panels is now driven by a few pioneers in the private sector as well as state researchers and the central government. The action was spurred after the Korea Environment Institute's 2018 statistic report showing that spent PV panels would increase from 198 tons in 2019 to more than 9,600 in 2023 and reach more than 16,000 in 2028.

The Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) in Daejeon, one of the country's state-funded researchers geared towards carbon neutralization and energy transition from fossil fuel to alternatives like hydrogen, has been working with the problem of recycling the elements of PV panels, from aluminum to glass, silicon, copper and lead.

"The most environmentally hazardous ingredient is lead, although there is only so much that's even below the lowest amount (three milligrams per liter or less) legally required for proper waste treatment," Lee Jin-seok from KIER's Energy Conversion and Storage Materials Laboratory told the Korea Times.

Lead can be found on the surface of solar ribbon, a copper conductor coated with a tin-lead alloy and installed directly on to silicon crystals to interconnect solar cells inside the panel. Lee said lead can be extracted after collecting the solar ribbons from spent panels.

Lee's lab also found ways to recycle aluminum and glass, which separate the matter from the panels physically (or thermally for glass) to reuse them as ingredients for new aluminum alloys or plate glass. For silicon and copper, solar cells and solar ribbons are first retrieved and the materials are chemically separated to be recycled for new materials or parts for PV system manufacturing.

An electrician connects PV panels. GETTYIMAGESBANK
An electrician connects PV panels. GETTYIMAGESBANK

In Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, Chungbuk Technopark, a joint research and development facility combining industries, schools, researchers and government, has also been working on the issue. Park Byung-wook, chief of the energy industry department from the facility's Next-Generation Energy Center, confirmed with the Korea Times that the recycling process for spent PV panels was largely the same as what KIER had found.

"We separate lead, glass, aluminum, silicon, coppers and tin from the panels and send each material to different recycling firms," Park said.

Line Tech Solar, a private firm in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, specializes in deconstructing aged PV panels and "repowering" them ― replacing old components with new ones to extend their lifespan. The company repowers modules or inverters of panels that have operated for 10 years or longer and whose power efficiency is reduced by 20 percent or more.

The real merit of repowering is in reviving old PV panels while recycling their hardware components ― which reduces financial costs and work time.

"We were part of the advisory group for Chungbuk Technopark's PV panel recycling division when the facility was completed in 2003," Line Tech Solar CEO Kang Jung-il told the Korea Times. The company, he said, would introduce its own PV panel recycling pipeline in 2021. The company has been exporting collected PV modules from deconstructed panels.

At government level, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy launched a project to complete a PV panel recycling facility in Jincheon County in North Chungcheong Province in 2021. The facility will be able to recycle 3,600 tons of PV panels a year.

"The new facility will break down the panels into separate components like frames, junction boxes, back sheets and glass to extract from them silver, silicon, copper, glass and tin for recycling," Cho Soo-yeon, an official from the ministry's New and Renewable Energy Policy Bureau, told the Korea Times. "The whole extraction processing leaves no by-products except the extracts, so there are no environmental hazards."


Looming battle

With the increasing reliance on PV systems, Korea's PV panel recycling capacity raises concerns it must muscle up sooner or later to prevent spent panels from being dumped at massive environmental cost.

So far, the country has not been burdened with a worrying load of spent panels. But pioneering firms, researchers and the central government have begun improving the infrastructure and designing new laws to deal with the looming battle.

"Right now, demand on recycling the panels is low because of COVID-19's impact on global markets, but the influx of panels from China, Australia and the Europe will increase in future, lowering their rates for export," Kang said. "With an increasing number of spent PV panels to be recycled, sufficient governmental and private facilities are required."

Lee also warned that the country would have "a consistently growing amount of spent PV panels" and that the "nurturing of PV recycling industry must begin now."

The country's PV panel recycling industry is still at its beginning phase, according to Park. While many local firms have been interested in the industry, only one ― in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang Province ― is completely equipped for the operation and registered under the Ministry of Environment as a certified PV panel recycler as of August this year. Built in 2019, the facility recycles 1,000 tons of spent panels a year.

"With the upcoming 3,600 ton-capacity recycling facility in Jincheon and another private facility being built, the country will have increased recycling capacity," Park said.

Employees from Line Tech Solar deconstruct aged photovoltaic panels from a 400kW-capacity PV system farm in Jangheung, South Jeolla Province, in January 2020. Courtesy of Line Tech Solar
Employees from Line Tech Solar deconstruct aged photovoltaic panels from a 400kW-capacity PV system farm in Jangheung, South Jeolla Province, in January 2020. Courtesy of Line Tech Solar

While recycling facilities take spent PV panels from various consumers, a law to take effect in 2023 targets the panels' producers.

In August 2019, the Korea Photovoltaic Industry Association (KOPIA), the energy ministry and the environment ministry signed an innovative memorandum of understanding to make it mandatory for PV panel producers to recycle their products under extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations.

"PV systems started rapidly increasing in Korea from mid-2000s, and, considering their average lifespan of 20 to 30 years, we expect to see spent PV panels seriously piling up from 2023," KOPIA official Park Moon-soo told the Korea Times.

The tripartite agreement placed spent PV panels under EPR because up to 90 percent of the hardware is recyclable, including tempered glass and aluminum with a weight percentage of 68 and 16, respectively. Four materials used for containers like synthetic resins or aluminum cans and 39 mass-produced items like tires and fluorescent lights are already under the Korean EPR.

The agreement also boosted national research into PV panel recycling technologies and how to collect spent panels nationwide more systemically.

"EPR has already been proven effective in Korea with electronic appliances," said Park from KOPIA. "Considering the uniqueness of PV panels in that they produce electricity rather than consume it, EPR can lay down effective ground rules for recycling the panels."


Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr


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