Older, used (but useful) solar panels are usually thrown away. Instead, we use them to power low-income households, schools, & nonprofits.
Now that the solar industry is 20-30 years old, many homeowners and businesses are replacing older panels (modules) with new. Old modules still work, maintaining 80-90% viability. They are not recyclable here in the US. Most are thrown into a dumpster, then tossed into the landfill. California and other states are now classifying used solar panels are as hazardous waste, adding several layers of complexity and cost to their disposal.
Our team recovers these panels from the job site, then works with schools, other nonprofit organizations (homeless shelters, environmental advocacy groups, etc.), and low-income households to build very low cost or free solar arrays. Most of these segments of society have been priced out of the solar market due to cost considerations or inability to get loans. A new panel may cost $400, so if we are able to donate 50 or more to a partner organization, we have provided significant upfront cost savings. With lower or non-existent electric utility costs, folks are able to use their resources for direct services, or for rent or food. Best of all, as electric rates go up, the cost saving realized by the panels increases. A dollar's worth of solar power today is worth a dollar and a half in just a few years, and keeps increasing in value against ever-rising utility rates.
We have volunteer labor installation days, during which we also train students from high schools, and others looking to get into the solar field. Some come from Solar Learning Labs we support, and from local internships we facilitate.
Finally, solar panels not only reduce draw on the power grid, but contribute power to it, all without the wires and poles so commonly linked to massive wildfires.
We also seek to export used panels and educational strategies to schools and community centers in third world nations.
Is this proposal for a practice or a project?
What actions do you propose?
We propose four distinct but interrelated sets of actions.
First, we have established relationships with solar contractors and manufacturers. We continue to increase our partnerships with companies and contractors. When a company, such as Sunpower (one of our partners) has functional but blemished modules, or uses modules for research and development, they donate them to us in exchange for a tax-deduction. When a contractor removes older but functional modules from an previous installation, usually when the customer is upgrading the system, she, or the homeowner, donates the modules to us in exchange for a tax-deduction. (Solar modules have no moving parts, and thus don't generally 'break.' Instead, newer technology has increased the power output such that the same amount of roof space provides close to double the power. Most of the older modules still produce 80-90% of their rated output.) In both of these cases, modules which were previously thrown away have now been removed from the solid waste stream, and, in California, from the hazardous waste stream. Contractors provide operational support for our work by paying a per-watt hazardous waste removal fee.
Second, we re-purpose these modules. Instead of throwing away free power, we work with schools, low-income households, and nonprofit partners (such as homeless shelters, environmental advocacy groups, senior centers, youth clubs, and more), to provide free or low-cost installations of these modules at their site. Using a variety methods, including volunteers, fund raising and community support, we provide design and engineering work to permit these 'new' systems, and the labor to build the solar arrays. The supported organizations receive immediate benefit in the reduction of their utility bills, allowing that money to be re-directed into direct services. Over time, as utility rates increase, the value of free power increases. We like to say that a $1 worth of donated solar today is worth $1.06 the next year, $1.13 the year after, and increases in value each year thereafter. Since there are few upfront costs, and no loans, the barrier to entry is almost eliminated, making solar affordable to a much wider segment of the society.
Third, solar energy production is clean, green, quiet, and local. Once installed, a solar array silently produces energy whenever light is present. In the process, it generates no greenhouse gases, uses no fossil fuels, requires almost no maintenance, and rarely fails. The power produced is close to the site of use, so no additional transportation costs or infrastructure is required. In addition, total life cycle analysis suggests that new solar modules produce enough energy to off-set their production costs in less than 2 years, with that number coming down as production costs decrease and efficiency increases. Since our modules have already paid off their production costs many years ago, all the power they produce leaves carbon in the ground.
Most solar power systems are connected to the power grid through an inverter. Any extra energy produced on site travels back into the power grid for use anywhere else. Solar arrays are therefore mini-power plants. The more solar power is produced, the less need there is for fossil fuel-intensive power generation sources such as coal or natural gas, or for expensive production cost power sources such as hydroelectric, nuclear and wind. Because solar generates power during the day when businesses need it most, overall stress on the power grid is reduced. And, though grid-tied solar systems utilize existing wired infrastructure, they require no new wires, poles, transformers or hardware from the utility company, further reducing carbon-intensive manufacturing, construction and transportation costs. Fewer wires also mean fewer high voltage wire failures such as those leading to many of the West's most catastrophic and expensive wildfires.
Fourth, our program includes an educational component. We provide materials and curriculum for Solar Learning Labs at high schools, maker labs and other locations. This allows young people to learn more about the world of solar, a fast-growing industry providing meaningful and rewarding jobs all over the world, and all up and down the economic and educational ladder. Even entry-level solar jobs provide a decent income, allowing young or economically disadvantaged folks a chance to pay for college classes, or skip the under-employment trap, or get off of social support programs. Many people from these programs end up in internships with local solar industries, and many of them end up employed.
Who will take these actions?
The staff and volunteers at Good Sun negotiate relationships with both the business and industrial partners providing donated solar equipment, and with the nonprofit and low-income partners seeking low-cost solar arrays, including those schools seeking Solar Learning Lab support. We are negotiating with both private and public entities to provide support for expanding this idea. Currently, all negotiations, business development, grant writing and development are handled by Good Sun's small and mostly volunteer staff.
Contractors and manufacturers provide access to used or unsellable solar equipment.
Cities, counties and other municipalities provide permitting processes, hopefully at reduced costs and with expedited time frames.
We hope for funding support from waste management firms and the state agencies that oversee them, and from regional utilities and the state offices in charge of reducing greenhouse gases and reducing carbon use.
Using donated panels and educational expertise, we also seek to provide low-cost power to schools and community centers in impoverished nations or areas of the world, and thus need cooperation from governmental regulatory agencies.
Where will these actions be taken?
Removing older solar modules (and generally throwing them away) is already taking place throughout those regions of the country and world where panels have been in place for 20 or so years. Our current efforts to gather and re-purpose these modules exist primarily in California, where several million panels have been installed over 3 decades, and where they are increasingly being upgraded. Any state or nation with a similarly developed solar industry is also seeing substantial removal of older equipment.
Re-purposing older modules can occur anywhere in the world, though transportation costs become an issue when the installations take place a significant distance from the sources of the modules. In addition to our local and regional partnerships, we are in conversations with Native American reservations, and with schools and villages in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Nepal. Completing projects internationally would require significant logistical and financial support. For instance, a used 40' shipping container costs approximately $2500, holds approximately 4-500 panels and ships for approximately $2500 to Mombasa.
Both the idea and the process are easily transferable, scalable and open-sourced. In other words, no working solar panel should ever be thrown away.
In addition, specify the country or countries where these actions will be taken.
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What impact will these actions have on greenhouse gas emissions and/or adapting to climate change?
Calculations for greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, are complicated by several factors, including the fuel used to generate power, the age and efficiency of power plants, the (often uncounted) costs of construction and production, the transportation costs for getting fuel to the plant, and more. Figures vary from country to country, and from region to region within a country. Hard figures are therefore difficult to obtain.
In general, though, research (also here and here) suggests that between 1.2 and 1.7 lbs of carbon dioxide are emitted, on average, for each kilowatt-hour of energy produced in the United States. An average small house solar system, let's say 3kW, thus reduces carbon emissions by 4-6 lbs/hour of operational time, perhaps 15-20 pounds per day, 2-300 days a year (more in Tucson, less in Seattle). A conservative average suggests this small system removes 4000 pounds (1.8 metric tons) of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions per year. Global solar production capacity has reached 4-500 gigawatts at this time. Using the previous calculations and averages, solar power reduces global greenhouse gases by 2.8 billion pounds (~1.3 million metric tons) per year. As solar power installations and production efficiencies increase, these benefits continue to accrue.
Solar power production produces no greenhouse gas emissions of any kind, though photovoltaic panel production, plus the costs of racking and installation, both utilize significant energy, so many studies have attempted to quantify the 'energy payback' time for panels. Again, calculations of this type rely on widely sourced averages - a solar panel receiving sun 6 hours a day for 250 days a year clearly achieves carbon parity much faster than one located with less sunshine. Payback time is widely estimated to be 2-4 years and steadily decreasing.
With relatively little outreach, our nonprofit has already accrued well over 500kWs in donated panels.These panels have long ago achieved energy payback. Installing just these panels alone would thus reduce carbon emissions by 480,000 pounds every single year they continue to produce power. As we know, greenhouse gas emissions have a direct relationship to climate change, so all carbon reductions work toward increasing climate resiliency. Climate action and clean energy provide significant and widespread benefits across many sectors of societies, including environmental, economic, social, and national security interests.
What are other key benefits?
“Compared with electricity from coal, PV electricity over its lifetime uses 86 to 89% less water, occupies or transforms over 80% less land, presents approximately 95% lower toxicity to humans, contributes 92 to 97% less to acid rain, and 97 to 98% less to marine eutrophication.” ~Carol Olson, researcher at the Energy Research Centre in the Netherlands
As indicated in the previous section, the climate change benefits of solar power have long been established. Our program adds power to the grid, helps meet state and regional renewable power targets, reduces reliance on high voltage wiring (a significant cause of disastrous wildfires), and helps insulate users against increasing utility costs.
Since we are re-purposing older but still functional panels, we are taking advantage of these benefits, and keeping panels out of the hazardous waste stream, meaning many thousands of panels each year, or tens of thousands over a wider area, will not be dumped into landfills. Hazardous waste is often transported over great distances, stored for many years, and/or pulled apart in unsafe foreign countries, all of which would be reduced with our program.
In addition, lowering greenhouse gas emissions produces measurable health benefits, including reduction in deaths, hospital visits, lost work days and decreased quality of life from conditions caused by fine particulate matter such as that produced by many power plants.
Since our panels provide free or very low-cost power for other nonprofits, for schools, and for low-income households, they increase direct services to communities, and provide financial relief for the poor. More money into the household means less stress, more productivity, better employment opportunities, healthier people, more income into the local economy.
In brief, we haven't found a negative side to this project yet.
What are the proposal’s projected costs?
Their are costs to our program, as follows:
Design, engineering and permitting costs for each installation.
Transportation and storage costs to gather, store, and bring panels onsite.
Employee costs to run the program.
Some construction costs, usually borne by the agency or household benefitting from the donation.
These costs are minimal and necessary for legal solar power installations. They vary from installation to installation, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, mostly acquired through fundraising and grants. There are no negative costs or side effects. The principal challenge to this project has to do with fundraising for the operational costs of running the nonprofit.
Positive impacts for this program accrue immediately upon installation of the first panel, and grow over time. The more panels we install, the more we remove from the hazardous waste stream, the more benefits we provide to the community, the more free, clean power we generate, the more greenhouse gases we eliminate, the more money we put into the pockets of low-income folks.
The benefits never go away and in fact increase as utility rates rise, trash disposal becomes more problematic, and the continued wealth gap increases.
About the author(s)
Scott V. Young, Executive Director of Good Sun (GoodSun.life) is a former high school English teacher, and serial do-gooder. In addition to writing grants, training volunteers, organizing fundraisers, negotiating contracts, helping to install free solar power systems, attending conferences, and all of the other myriad activities involved in running a small nonprofit (and this project), Scott runs a second nonprofit (kenyabigpicture.org), farms lavender and other flowers on his land, and maintains a lifelong enthusiasm for learning. He lives in a small, rural community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California. He wrote this proposal, though he is not the only member of the Good Sun team.
I added links to the text as needed in the proposal.