Solar Power Industry Faces Quality Control Issues - Energy Minute for June 6, 2013

Jun 6, 2013 12:00 PM ET
Press Release

The rapidly expanding solar power energy sector is having some equally intense growing pains. After bankruptcies caused by overproduction and falling prices for solar panels, the $77 billion a year industry now faces concerns about quality control, according to a recent report in the New York Times. A number of recent solar panel failures at several projects have alarmed utilities, developers, financiers, and insurers. Problems range from protective coatings that disintegrate to defects that cause fires.

Many of these quality issues focus on China, the world leader in solar panel manufacturing. There, even the most reputable companies have, apparently, sometimes substituted cheaper, untested materials and subcontracted assembly of solar panel modules to smaller, unreliable manufacturers. STS Certified, a testing service, says that the defect rate in modules it inspected jumped from 7.8 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2012. The company SolarBuyer has recorded defect rates of 5.5 to 22 percent during audits of 50 Chinese factories. In Britain, 12 percent of newly installed Chinese-made modules failed. And defect rates as high as 34.5 percent have been found in solar panels at Spanish power plants. Some Chinese producers acknowledge the problem.

The CTO of Suntech, a leading manufacturer of solar panels, admits there are a lot of shortcuts being taken by a lot of new, startup companies without the standards. But not all companies are reporting problems. The U.S. subsidiary of Yingli, a Chinese-owned company, claims that only 15 defective modules have been found out of 2.8 million shipped to the U.S. since 2009. SolarCity, the largest residential solar installer in the U.S. and a buyer of panels from China’s Yingli and Trina Solar, reports that the systems installed by the company in 2012 were “the best performing yet.” The quality concerns follow a surge in solar construction that saw capacity balloon from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012, with almost half of that capacity added in 2012 alone.

It’s hardly surprising that quality controls would suffer in the rush to meet such accelerated market demand. And if the history of new, boom markets is any guide, quality will not only be restored as a given across the solar power industry but premium performance will become a sales point of difference for those companies who rise to the challenge.

I’m John Howell for 3BL Media.

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