The developed world’s solar ‘trash’ is the developing world’s ...


The developed world’s solar ‘trash’ is the developing world’s treasure

As first-world countries upgrade their systems, used solar panels are powering the developing world and cutting waste

Adam Minter

A few years ago, I visited a dusty warehouse selling second-hand clothes in Cotonou, Benin. In the back, behind bundles of used Canadian T-shirts, were two pallets of unboxed solar panels. I assumed they were destined for the roof. One of the employees told me otherwise. “Our boss sells them to his customers across the border,” she said, referring to Nigeria. “They use them for water pumps on the farms.” A few minutes later, the boss showed up and told me he expected second-hand solar would soon be a bigger business than the centuries-old, multibillion-dollar used-clothing trade.

Across the developing world, homeowners, farmers and businesses are turning to cheap, second-hand solar to fill power gaps left by governments and utilities. To meet that demand, businesses ranging from individual sellers on Facebook Marketplace to specialised brokerages are getting into the trade. Earlier this month, Marubeni, one of Japan’s largest trading houses, announced that it’s establishing a blockchain-based market for such panels. Collectively, these businesses will likely play a crucial role in bringing renewable energy to the world’s emerging markets — and keeping hi-tech waste out of the trash.

In 2016, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) estimated that as much as 78 million tons of solar-panel waste will be generated by 2050. That’s almost certainly an undercount. Over the past decade, falling prices and improved efficiency in newer models have offered a strong incentive to replace solar panels earlier than their intended lifespan. By one estimate, those upgrades could lead to 50 times more waste than the agency has predicted within five years...

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