Solar Industry concerned Over Defective Photovoltaic Panels
GMT research estimates that the U.S. is installing one solar photovoltaic (PV) system every four minutes, and if market growth continues at its current pace, the American solar industry could be installing a system every minute and twenty seconds by 2016. Solar energy seems to be enjoying a new day in the sun, but that could be threatened by a reported rash of defective panels, caused by the high pressure to cut costs.
To make power generation from solar competitive, prices of solar panels had to come down. Tens of billions in subsidies were plowed into the industry. And the price per watt crashed exponentially, from $76 in 1977 to $0.74 per watt in 2013.
However, quality is increasingly a concern. Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers and insurers are reporting reliability problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption.
There are no industry wide figures about defective solar panels. And when defects are discovered, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret, making accountability in the industry all the more difficult.
The quality concerns have emerged just after a surge in solar construction. In the United States, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar panel generating capacity exploded in 2012, meaning any significant reliability problems may not become apparent for years.
Most of the concerns over quality center on China, home to the majority of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity. After incurring billions of dollars in debt to accelerate production that has sent solar panel prices plunging, Chinese solar companies are under extreme pressure to cut costs.
Executives at companies that inspect Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers said that over the last 18 months they have found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials. Other brand-name manufacturers, they said, have shut down production lines and subcontracted the assembly of modules to smaller makers where they have little to no control over quality. Photovoltaic modules at a Shanghai laboratory in 2012 found the defect rate had jumped from 7.8 percent to 13 percent.
The heart of a solar panel is a photovoltaic cell that generates electricity when struck by sunlight. Among the most critical components is a thin film that protects the cell from moisture, this encapsulate seals the cell between layers of glass. Inspections have found some manufacturers had been constantly switching to cheaper materials, including some whose use-by date had expired. If the materials aren’t good or haven’t been thoroughly tested, they won’t stick together and the solar module will eventually fall apart in the field.
All solar panels degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time. But a review of 30,000 installations in Europe by a German solar monitoring firm found 80 percent were underperforming.
Non-Chinese manufacturers have had quality problems as well. One company now offers a comprehensive insurance policy to customers and has established its own testing laboratory in the San Francisco area.
The lesson learned is that in order for solar power to continue to grow exponentially, manufacturers must be held accountable for their production quality standards. So be vigilant when selecting solar contractors and make sure you know whose solar modules are being used and check for reliability issues and product guarantees. Leasing may help as the leasing company maintains performance, and warranties the installation during the leasing term; and make sure your system has a built-in performance monitor.