Solar Industry Anxious over Defective Panels

June 5, 2013

The $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption, says the New York Times.

No one is sure how pervasive the problem is. 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. Billions of dollars have financed solar installations, on the premise that solar panels will more than pay for themselves over a quarter century.

The quality concerns have emerged just after a surge in solar construction.

  • In the United States, the Solar Energy Industries Association says that solar panel generating capacity exploded from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012, enough to power more than 1.2 million homes.
  • Nearly half that capacity was installed in 2012 alone, meaning any significant problems may not become apparent for years.

Most of the concerns over quality center on China. After incurring billions of dollars in debt to accelerate production that has sent solar panel prices plunging since 2009, Chinese solar companies are under extreme pressure to cut costs.

  • Chinese banks in March, for instance, forced solar energy company Suntech into bankruptcy.
  • Until 2012, the company had been the world's biggest solar manufacturer.
  • Executives at companies that inspect Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers say that over the last 18 months they have found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials.

All solar panels degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time.

  • But a review of 30,000 installations in Europe by the German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol found 80 percent were underperforming.
  • Testing of six manufacturers' solar panels at two Spanish power plants by Enertis Solar in 2010 found defect rates as high as 34.5 percent.
  • First Solar, one of the United States' biggest manufacturers, has set aside $271.2 million to cover the costs of replacing defective modules it made in 2008 and 2009.

Source: Todd Woody, "Solar Industry Anxious over Defective Panels," New York Times, May 28, 2013.

 

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