Just as solar cells are on the verge of widespread adoption,it appears that the $77 billion solar industry maybe facing a quality crisis. There are increasing reports, worldwide,of panel failures as well as disintegration of panel coatings ,some within just a few years of installation, denting the premise that solar panels will more than pay for themselves over a 25 year period.At stake is billions of dollars of investment throughout the world.
No one is sure how widespread the problem is. There are no industry wide figures and confidentiality agreements with manufacturers is making accountability in the industry over defective solar panels,all the more difficult.The quality concerns over solar cells could not have come at a worse time, as solar construction has boomed in the last few years. In the United States alone, generating capacity exploded from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012,
“We need to face up to the fact that corners are being cut,” said Conrad Burke, general manager for San Francisco based DuPont’s billion-dollar photovoltaic division, which supplies materials to solar manufacturers.
“I don’t want to be alarmist, but I think quality poses a long-term threat,” he said. “The quality across the board is harder to put your finger on now as materials in modules are changing every day and manufacturers are reluctant to share that information.”
Perhaps not surprisingly,most of the concerns over the quality of solar cells, centre on China, which is home to the majority of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity and is facing extreme pressure to cut costs due to excessive debt burdens caused by plunging solar cell prices. Already this year we have seen the collapse of Suntech who were the world’s biggest solar manufacturer.
Analysts have recently found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials and subcontracting the assembly of solar cells and modules to smaller makers.
“We have inspectors in a lot of factories, and it’s not rare to see some big brands being produced in these smaller workshops where they have no control over quality,” said Thibaut Lemoine, general manager of STS Certified, a French-owned testing service,who have seen the defect rate jump from 7.8 percent to 13 percent, since 2011.
And SolarBuyer, a company based in Marlborough, Mass., discovered defect rates ranging from 5.5 percent to 22 percent of solar cells,during audits of 50 Chinese factories over the last 18 months, said Ian Gregory, the company’s senior marketing director.
The heart of any solar panel is the photovoltaic solar cells that generates electricity when struck by sunlight. Among the most critical components are a thin film that protects the solar celsl from moisture, and the encapsulant that seals the solar cells inbetween the layers of glass.
Mr. Gregory said repeat inspections of factories found some manufacturers had been constantly switching to cheaper materials, including some whose use-by date had expired.
“If the materials aren’t good enough or haven’t been thoroughly tested, they won’t stick together and the solar cell module will eventually fall apart in the field,” he said.
Of course all solar cell panels will degrade and 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 under performing,while testing of six manufacturers’ solar panels at two Spanish power plants by Enertis Solar in 2010 found solar cell defect rates as high as 34.5 percent. And as recently as this March,an inspection of a solar plant in Britain showed that 12 percent of the newly installed Chinese-made solar cell modules had failed.
However the problems are not confined solely to Chinese manufacturers.First Solar, one of the United States’ biggest manufacturers, has apparently set aside $271.2 million to cover the costs of replacing defective solar cells made up to 2009.
So this issue is not only industry wide but is being seen across the world.These are certainly worrying times for the solar industry and it needs to get a grip on the problem quickly, before the hopes of a bright future are extinguished,perhaps permanently.,
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