We have just learned that solar panel manufacturer SolarWorld has announced a recall involving 1.3 million solar panels sold in the U.S. since June 2011. According to the Notice filed with the Consumer Products Safety Commission:
SolarWorld solar panels installed with bare-copper grounding lugs can corrode which could result in a faulty ground circuit, posing an electric shock, electrocution or fire hazard.
Behind the Headline
So what exactly is the issue here? All metal components of a solar power system—such as the frames of the solar panels and the rails to which they are attached—are supposed to be grounded. There are many ways that can be done, but one common method is to attach a copper lug to the panel frame and run a copper grounding wire from lug to lug and ultimately to ground. The problem arises from the fact that copper grounding lugs come in two varieties: bare copper and "tinned" copper, that is copper with a coating of tin.
|Bare copper grounding lugs
||"Tinned" copper grounding lugs
If the installer used a bare copper lug, it could cause corrosion to form between the panel frame and the lug. That corrosion could prevent the ground from being effective, which could result in the potential problems highlighted in the CPSC notice.
In other words, while this is a potential problem and systems should be inspected to insure that the proper, "tinned" lug was used, the recall does not involve the safety of the solar panels themselves. Moreover, the fix, if required, is straightforward (even if potentially time consuming): simply replace the improper lugs with proper ones.
Who Used the Panels?
While the recall notice refers to 1.3 million panels in the U.S., we wanted to get a sense of how many of these panels have been installed in California, and, more specifically, in the Run on Sun service area. To get a handle on that we turned to two familiar data sources: CSI data (showing installs in SCE, PG&E and SDG&E territories) and LADWP data. Given that LADWP requires the use of grounding lugs (as opposed to WEEBs), there is an even higher probability that SolarWorld systems in LADWP territory used a grounding lug.
The CSI data shows just how widespread this issue could be. More than half a million SolarWorld panels have been installed in CSI territories, accounting for over 6,500 different installations, installed by more than 500 different companies! How many of those companies are still in business is anybody's guess. In SCE territory alone, 186,000 SolarWorld panels were installed at 3,125 different projects, by nearly 300 different companies.
The installers with by far the greatest number of SolarWorld panels installed are Shorebreak Energy Developers (43,242 panels installed at 46 different projects) and Chevron Energy Solutions (20,464 panels at 15 projects). In terms of having the greatest number of projects, six companies have 100 or more projects, and the winners there are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (217 projects), Titan Construction and Solar (202), Natural Energy (186), Contact Electric (174), Future Energy Corporation (124) and TLP Electric Integrations (103).
The LADWP data is, not surprisingly, somewhat more opaque. For example, they do not track how many solar panels are installed on a given project so we cannot determine the total number of SolarWorld panels that have been installed. We do know that there are some 759 projects overall where SolarWorld panels were used, and more than 100 different installers were involved. Three of those installers were responsible for fifty or more projects, they are: A1 Solar Power, Inc. (120 projects), Sungate Energy Solutions (76) and American Solar Solutions (67). Looks like the folks at A1 Solar Power are going to be busy!
What to Do?
If you are the owner of a SolarWorld installation, you will want to contact your installer and see what they are willing to do. At a minimum, they should be willing to come out to your site, free of cost, and verify that the proper lugs were used. Even if it were the company's policy to always use "tinned" lugs, a system owner should not rely on those assurances since install crews have been known to substitute whatever is available at the local hardware store in order to complete the project and move on to the next.
If your installer is no longer in business, or is unwilling to come out and verify that your system is safe, you should contact SolarWorld themselves directly. They have established a toll-free number to call: 877-360-1787, M-F from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.