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Nothing like a piece in the New York Times questioning the reliability of some solar modules to get tongues wagging and some pointing fingers at “Chinese dumping” while others tell us that solar technology is just not ready for prime time. To us it raises a different question - does quality sell?
The article, titled Solar Industry Anxious Over Defective Panels, points to installations as close as the Inland Empire, having shockingly high failure rates after just two years of being installed. “Coatings that protect the panels disintegrated while other defects caused two fires that took the system offline for two years, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenues.” Wow - that is shocking. So who made those defective panels? The reporter doesn’t say.
Nor are any of the problem panels alluded to in this story ever named, citing, in some cases, confidentiality agreements.
Which raises a serious problem with the article: if you cannot identify any of the solar module manufacturers that are having these problems you leave the impression that all solar modules are suspect. (Our analysis on who the guilty party might be is below…)
A quick perusal of the comments to the article reveals the predictable factions: those who echo the Fox News line that solar is a failed technology that only exists because of the Obama Administration’s foolish indulgence in Green Tech; claims that all problems in the solar industry are a result of “Chinese dumping” and the associated China bashing; countered partially by a handful of comments from people who actually know something about the industry.
We find the Chinese bashing particularly problematic - after all, the Chinese are not putting a gun to any project developer’s head and forcing them to use third-tier panels.
Greed is what is causing that.
We have been in business since 2006 and there have always been high quality solar panels available from reputable manufacturers - and they have always cost more than many of the panels offered to us for use in our projects. Scanning the CSI data (see below) reveals that many projects - including many of the largest projects - were built using those “bargain basement” panels. Why? Because it maximized the project developer’s profit.
This is not a new problem, despite it getting a major splash in the “Paper of Record." Indeed, we wrote in the Spring of 2012 about how the decision by project developers to focus on the lowest cost per Watt “will continue to put undue pressure on quality manufacturers around the globe - whether in the US or China. Consumer demand for quality is the ultimate way to improve this situation - and that means educating consumers as to what quality means in this market." A year plus has gone by, but where has that educational effort been? The need is as great - or greater than ever, but sadly, the NY Times piece fails on that score. (If you want to read an earlier, and far more comprehensive article on this subject, check out this piece by the great Felicity Carus: Quality Issues Threaten to Give Solar a Black Eye.)
It’s a Friday morning so we decided to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes and go diving into the CSI data to see if we could identify the guilty party alluded to in the NY Times piece. Here is all they gave us to go on - the project has been in place for roughly four or more years (failed after 2 years, offline for 2 years), located in the “Inland Empire” and its downtime resulted in a loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in revenue. From that we concluded that we needed to look at systems from 2010 or earlier, in the Inland Empire - which we took to mean anywhere in the counties of Riverside or San Bernardino - and of at least 200 kW. Those criteria provide us with 28 potential systems, built with solar panels from just seven manufacturers. Here are our results:
What can we say about these manufacturers? Well, certainly BP Solar, SunPower, Kyocera and Sanyo would all be considered top-tier manufacturers of solar panels - although BP is exiting the solar industry and Sanyo is now owned by Panasonic.
As for the others, Evergreen Solar was a US manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy in August 2011. Solar Integrated Technologies was a subsidiary of Michigan-based Energy Conversion Devices which itself filed for bankruptcy in February 2012. Solar Semiconductor is a vertically integrated systems provider with manufacturing facilities in India.
So who is the guilty party? No way to know for sure, but a little online searching reveals other problems for one of these companies. A September 14, 2012 article on the San Diego Union Tribune website documents problems with “Flawed Solar Panels” that were manufactured by Solar Integrated Technologies. According to the article, the panels manufactured by the company, “had a manufacturing defect that allowed water to seep into crevices of the panels, which in some cases created corrosion and in the worst-case scenario could cause a short that could start rooftop fires” - which sounds a great deal like the problem cited in the New York Times piece.