Blogs, Solar

From eBay to pvBay – getting used to used PV

Could the advent of online bazaars for secondhand PV components mean that PV, after decades of trying to grow its installed capacity, has come of age?

[An amended version of this blog post appeared in the June 2016 issue of pv magazine]

Finding a buyer for used items – a dinged desk, a battered bicycle, an old car – was once handled by pinning mimeographed announcements to bulletin boards or buying classified ads in the local newspaper.

Then came eBay.

Image: Aware-house: SecondSol head Frank Fiedler (left) checks his warehouse inventory. Photo credit: SecondSol

Given the debt SecondSol no doubt owes to the status of that online auctioning website, the Germany-headquartered company could easily be dubbed “pvBay.” But SecondSol, started in 2012, with an online platform serving the second market for PV by connecting buyers and sellers of panels, inverters and other solar components in Europe, has done eBay one better. Unlike eBay’s generalized, sketchy pitch for any product imaginable – including PV system components – SecondSol has gone for detail, allowing users to enter all the data a solar trader and a PV bargain hunter could want – be it MPP current, open circuit voltage, or the size of a panel down to the last millimeter.

 The American dream

 And now SecondSol is getting ready to export that blueprint to the US. The germ for the idea came to SecondSol CEO Frank Fiedler at the US Intersolar Trade Fair in San Francisco last year. In talking with other visitors, he realized that the solar market boom in the US made it a good prospect for its own national platform. “It didn’t make any sense that an American looking for a used module would try to buy a second-market panel in Europe,” he says, “or for Europeans to buy panels in America.”

The result was that his company set up a US clone in May. A beta version (which does not yet accept data input) has been added to the website of SecondSol’s US partner Solarado, a name derived by combining “solar” and “Colorado,” the US firm’s home state. In June, Fiedler says, SecondSol will start a promotion campaign for the Solarado platform. Given the American mentality in dealing with products,  he believes the US is ripe for its own PV online marketplace. “If you are in Europe and the module has a scratch, they destroy it,” Fiedler says. “But the Americans think, ‘Why should I get rid of the panel? It still works.”

The fact that a marketplace for second-hand PV components exists at all could be seen as an indication of a maturing industrial sector – that PV has come of age, rather than languishing as a juvenile technology struggling to prove its worth. With a worldwide installed solar capacity of nearly 260 GW at the end of 2015*, the PV industry has reached a stage and age where it can support not only the continued sale of new pristine products, but the pre-owned, pre-insulated and pre-sunned variety as well.

And SecondSol is leading the charge. Fiedler says that SecondSol oversees 45,000 modules, including 3,500 different types, kept in three warehouses. He claims that his platform has more than 50 transactions daily from about 1,000 dedicated users per day. It currently advertises 3,800 items, which he estimates as having a total value of €60 million.

For an industrial segment yearning to becosenme a traditional part of the electricity-generating establishment, the fact that PV has its own eBay-like platform is a big step forward. Until SecondSol, the only formal means ensuring a longer life for all of the materials that went into modules was to recycle the composite parts, mainly via the pan-European legislation on the take-back of solar equipment spearheaded by the Brussels-headquartered PV CYCLE association. But instead of recycling throwaways, SecondSol offers the hope of a second life for the whole product, be it with cosmetic flaws or repaired defects.

A Change of Emphasis

 That is how Stefan Wippich sees the development of the sector. As head of Envaris, a German company that assesses defects in PV equipment for insurance companies, manufacturers, residential and commercial system owners and managers, he is both a user of SecondSol and a SecondSol advisor (Wippich is also listed as the head of the press and marketing department at SecondSol’s US partner Solarado). Wippich believes the timing for a service like SecondSol is perfect.

“Before 2010, there was so much money and PV product available (in Europe) that no one cared about the secondhand market,” he remembers. But with PV systems continuing their generation of electricity year after year – and following the downturn of the market  at the start of the decade after the boom days – the emphasis has changed. “The older the system, the more difficult it is to repair. And technical advancements are happening very fast. The result is that now for the old PV systems, we need old modules.”

He cites an example of a system from 2006 with a broken polycrystalline module, which would have required a time-consuming and complicated search for a panel with similar open voltage, short circuit and nominal power stats, as well as matching the color and size of the remaining array. “Now we can use SecondSol to find a polycrystalline module with nearly the same specifications that looks similar. It can even be from a different manufacturer. If you need to replace a 180 watt module with 8 amperes and 32 volts, we find a module with 200 watts and 8.2 ampere and 34 volts that will work just as well.”

But with utility-scale solar, Wippich says the equation is reversed for his company. Envaris becomes the seller. When modules are damaged, perhaps after a hail storm, Wippich finds it easier to exchange a whole string with completely new modules to repower the park. “But instead of throwing away the old modules, as one might normally, we sell them via SecondSol. So it’s the other way round.”

Image: Speck inspection: pvXchange’s Martin Schachinger gives a new-used BP Solar panel the once-over. Photo; SecondSol

A Second Firm for the Second Market

Another company in the business of a second PV market is pvXchange, which concentrates on large-scale systems. The German solar trader started dealing with new and used PV equipment in 2004. But its managing director, Martin Schachinger, soon discovered that his vision of building up an eBay-like platform for PV was ahead of its time. “Nobody was interested in used modules back then,” he recalls. “Our deals were over 99% for new products.”

Image: Sticker shock: SecondSol has started to sell vignettes with QR codes to give module thieves a reason to go straight. Photo; MDR journal

It wasn’t until April 2015, when pvXchange partnered with Adler Solar, an after-sales German company which measures, tests and repairs PV modules and components, that pvXchange got back into the secondhand market. But not for private users. As a B2B trading platform focused on large-scale installations, only licensed business customers can register to use its service. Much of its used-panel business involves uninstalling modules and inverters, in some cases never connected to the grid, from parks in Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic. (Since its partner Adler has a joint venture in Tokyo, pvXchange is in “a testing and research phase” to start service in Japan, he says.) As at SecondSol, pvXchange buyers can expect to save between 20% to 30% compared to new modules. Given that the 25-year module warranties are usually no longer honored, the price has to be low enough for a buyer to gamble on a purchase. “Some customers are dreaming of a world where they can get all of the warranties on the products while paying less money,” Schachinger says. “But in reality, the lower the price, the higher the risk they are taking.”

Far smaller than SecondSol, pvXchange has an inventory of 10,000 modules and between 400 and 500 types, some acquired from manufacturers selling off surplus stock or from insolvent manufacturers emptying warehouse shelves. Schachinger says he is not worried if he has to wait to sell off the stock pvXchange has accumulated. “At some point, someone will comes along and buy exactly what we have – the panel type and brand and specification – and then we can get a lot of money. It’s like dealing with antiques or old-timers.”

For Fiedler at SecondSol, the analogy for offering used products available nowhere else – perhaps rebuilt or repaired – is “like buying a good wine.” He says his company can even help manufacturers that have sold him surplus stocks “to find their own products” requested by wholesalers or installers.

To Catch a Thief

Indeed, SecondSol will take almost any module it can get – unless the used item is stolen. As a response to the growing problem of the theft of panels, be it from utility-scale installations or rooftop systems, two years ago SecondSol started a product called PV-Diebstahl (PV Theft). These are vignettes for putting on modules and inverters with owner identification serial numbers that are registered to an online databank with the police as a way of deterring thieves. Any attempt to remove stickers leaves behind scannable QR (Quick Response) codes. Fiedler, who recently sold 160,000 vignettes to one solar farm, says the cost per piece is 30 euro cents for up to 50 vignettes, dropping to 8 euro cents for a purchase of more than 50,000. Aside from more piece of mind, users usually get a premium from insurers.

So will the “eBay”azation of PV continue? Fiedler will probably know more once the US Solarado platform gets off the ground. For now, he estimates that his online platform for trading PV components, with what he describes as “a small fee” per transaction, is growing annually by 10% to 25%.

“Five or six years ago, people were laughing at us, telling us, ‘Why are you doing this? Anything below 100 watts, it’s nothing. It’s a joke’.” Fiedler seems confident that in a maturing PV world where there is room for brand-new products as well as the second-market variety, he will have the last laugh.

*According to the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems Programme (IEA PVPS), this includes 227 GW from PVPS countries and 30 MW from other nations.

This article was republished with permission.