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Adam Minter

Used Solar Panels Are Powering the Developing World

An overlooked niche in the energy trade is keeping high-tech waste out of the trash — and helping to connect millions of people to reliable electricity. 

Good as new.

Good as new.

Photographer: Niccolo Guasti/Getty Images

A few years ago, I visited a dusty warehouse selling secondhand 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 that he expected secondhand 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, secondhand solar to fill power gaps left by governments and utilities. To meet that demand, businesses ranging from individual sellers on Facebook Marketplace to specialized brokerages are getting into the trade. Earlier this month, Marubeni Corp., 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 high-tech waste out of the trash.