[Green Paradox] What’s going to Korea do with lifeless solar panels?

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If solar panels are used for about 25 years, they are defined as “dead” in Korea.

They are typically made of 76 percent glass, 10 percent polymer, 8 percent aluminum, 5 percent silicon, and 1 percent other metals, including copper and silver. As soon as they are “dead”, they are recycled or sent to other countries for use.

In countries like Germany, where ecosystems for renewable energies have been further developed, 70 percent of dead solar panels are reused.

In line with global renewable energy initiatives, the use of solar panels in Korea has increased, and consequently the volume of dead solar panels will also increase.

According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, the volume of dead solar panels will reach 9,665 tons by 2023 and increase to 16,245 tons in 2028 and 58,369 tons in 2033.

When dead solar panels are collected in Korea, they are exported in good condition for use in countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan.

Those in worse shape are dismantled from their aluminum frames, after which they are typically burned or buried underground. This is because the recycling process costs much more than the income that can be made from retrieving the metals such as silver and copper in it and selling them.

Also, due to profitability issues, there is only one privately owned recycling center that can deal with dead panels. It is able to process around 3,600 tons of panels per year, which will soon be far less than the amount of dead panels that will pile up.

To address the problem, the government is building a public recycling center with a capacity of 3,600 tons, due to be completed in the second half of next year. Another privately owned recycling center with a capacity of 2,500 tons will be completed in 2022.

Beyond the immediate issue of infrastructure, the industry is at odds with the government on how to charge manufacturers for environmental cost sharing, and even how toxic solar panels are in the first place.

How much has to be reused?

There are currently no clear standards or guidelines in Korea according to which dead solar panels can be reused.

“Korea is currently burying most of its dead solar panels underground or exporting them to developing countries as there is no business model for making profit by reusing dead solar panels,” said a Korea Environment Corp official.

While the government is optimistic that the reuse rate of dead solar panels can reach around 70 percent like in advanced countries, industry experts are cautious.

“New solar modules are much more powerful than older models that were launched a few years ago. Since performance is directly related to solar farm profitability, it is doubtful that customers would prefer dead solar panels as their performance rate will have dropped significantly after 20 years of use, ”said an industry source from a major solar panel manufacturer.

In Europe, governments have now developed regulations to enforce greater reuse of dead panels.

Since 2012, Germany and 14 other European nations have passed the directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, according to which manufacturers have to retrieve 85 percent of dead solar modules. Then manufacturers have to recycle 80 percent of the dead panels found and turn them into new panels for reuse. Thanks to the WEEE directive, Germany reused 71 percent of dead solar modules in 2016.

EPR policy debate

The Korean government is also making efforts to pass regulations with objectives similar to the WEEE directive, but the approach is different.

Starting in 2023, the Ministry of the Environment plans to include solar panels in its recycling policy, known as “extended producer responsibility”.

The EPR directive will impose penalties on solar panel manufacturers or importers for failing to pick up and recycle a certain percentage of the government-imposed dead solar panels.

Through the EPR policy, the ministry aims to support solar panel recycling facilities, as well as collecting fines from petrochemical companies and using the money to help and incentivize recycling companies that process plastic waste.

Domestic solar module manufacturers, however, criticize the solar module EPR policy for imposing penalties if manufacturers fail to process quota of dead modules based on last year’s production. As the industry grows and it takes more than 20 years for dead solar modules to appear after they are installed, the required spent modules may not be available.

“Thanks to the latest technological advances, the life of a solar module can be extended to up to 30 years. There is a difference between dead solar panels and typical waste, ”said an industry source.

According to the Korea Photovoltaic Industry Association, the EPR policy costs 2,129 won ($ 1.85) per kilogram for a solar panel that weighs an average of 15 to 20 kg.

This would correspond to 31 to 40 percent of the panel price. For a 100 megawatt solar farm that would use 6,576 tons of solar panels, the fines would be 14 billion won.

Legally, the Ministry of Environment intends to add solar panels to the EPR list by revising the Resource Circulation Act for Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Vehicles. The current EPR list includes 23 types of electrical appliances, including refrigerators, televisions, computers, and washing machines.

However, Article 2-1 states that the term “electrical and electronic equipment” applies to machines and equipment that is operated with electrical current or electromagnetic fields. With this clause, companies argue that their solar modules, which do not require electricity to operate, cannot be counted as electronic devices and should be viewed as generating devices.

“I think the Environment Department thinks throwing away old TVs and processing dead solar panels is the same thing it isn’t,” an industry source said.

While recognizing that there are no legal grounds for including solar panels on the EPR list, the Ministry stresses the need to move and urges Korea to evaluate the European Union, which included solar panels on its EPR list in 2012 .

Domestic solar module manufacturers, however, point out that Korea has a different market situation from European countries.

According to the Korea Environment Industry & Technology Institute, European countries have adopted the EPR directive for solar panels as their market was dominated by overwhelming quantities of imported Chinese products in the early 2010s. As part of EPR policy, European countries received fines from Chinese solar panels and used the money to promote their solar panel recycling industries.

In contrast to European countries, the proportion of domestic solar modules in Korea was according to data from Korea Energy Corp. last year at 78.4 percent.

“If the environment ministry promotes the solar panel recycling industry with the money raised from domestic solar panel manufacturers, it will only add to their burden,” said an industry source.

Fundamentally divided

In addition, the Ministry of the Environment and domestic solar module manufacturers are closing their horns because of the toxicity of solar modules.

To support the legitimacy of EPR policies, the environment ministry cited research from the Korea Environment Institute, which was running tests on solar panels to look for seven types of heavy metals. The test found four types of heavy metals – copper, mercury, chromium, and lead – in all four solar panel samples and arsenic from three of the samples.

While domestic solar panel manufacturers accepted the test results, they noted that the ministry failed to mention that all seven types of heavy metals were detected below what the Waste Control Act would classify them as hazardous substances.

To counter the KEI report, domestic solar panel manufacturers proposed a report from the Korea Testing & Research Institute that tested solar panels in their original form rather than grinding and testing them. The KTR test results showed that the solar module samples contained substances that were below the water pollution standards set out in the Water Environment Protection Act, with the exception of sodium, one of the main components of salt.

Based on the KTR test results, domestic solar module manufacturers say that their modules are cleaner than tap water and do not harm the environment in any way.

Domestic solar panel manufacturers in particular criticized the ministry for misleading – even terrifying – the public by citing the KEI report that cadmium, which causes cancer, was one of the seven types of heavy metals to be detected, despite solar panels being made in Korea crystalline silicon plates do not contain any cadmium at all.

“Solar panels containing cadmium in Korea are imported thin-film solar panels made by a US company,” said an industry source.

According to KEITI, more than 90 percent of the solar modules in Korea are crystalline silicon modules.

By Kim Byung-wook (kbw@heraldcorp.com)

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