Blockchain to power Marubeni’s market for used solar panels in Japan

Marubeni operates solar farms like this one in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. (Photo courtesy of Marubeni)

TAKEHIRO HASEGAWA, Nikkei staff writer | Japan

TOKYO — Japanese trading house Marubeni will set up a market for used solar panels featuring blockchain technology to maintain accurate records and prevent fraud.

The company plans to launch a website as early as next fiscal year where buyers and sellers can provide information and make trades. Marubeni itself will participate in the market, looking to make money from buying, selling, exporting and generating power from used panels.

Japan’s Environment Ministry estimates that 800,000 tons of solar panels will require replacing here each year in the mid-2030s — nearly 300 times the 2020 tally. Finding new homes for this equipment would cut down on waste and get more mileage out of the silicon and other materials used in their construction.

Marubeni expects that a trustworthy distribution network for this equipment would draw interest from domestic and foreign power companies, among others. It plans to partner with Japan’s Environment Ministry and Nagano-based Next Energy & Resources on the project, seeking to make the platform Japan’s go-to market for such deals.

Solar panels typically need to be replaced after 20 to 30 years. While they generate less energy as time goes by, some maintain performance better than others. When panels are swapped out, for reasons ranging from natural disasters to upgrading to newer models, the old cells sometimes still have life left in them.

Markets for used solar panels have yet to take root in Japan or abroad.

Other Japanese enterprises look to reuse materials from old panels. A solar company under the umbrella of oil refiner Idemitsu Kosan launched a trial this spring of technology to recover intact glass sheets from used cells. An affiliate of JFE Engineering plans to launch a panel recycling business within this fiscal year.

The question of what to do with old solar panels is becoming more pressing in Japan, where the solar industry has boomed since the government introduced a feed-in tariff in 2012. Illegal dumping of old equipment has already become an issue, which a market to promote reuse could help address.

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