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A Solar Panel Quality Manifesto

Falling prices for PV technology – new average price for inventory, $0.65/Wp, off brand b- and c-grade modules, falling margins, failing PV companies, fraud, poorly installed systems and even counterfeit module product that carries a name brand and is really an off brand – good grief, what's an industry to do? Any day now we may encounter a guy on the corner with a pile of counterfeit modules, an armful of fake Rolexes and a pile of faux-Gucci purses all to be had at $9.99.

The PV industry needs to get back to its quality roots. This means it needs to stop making excuses for buying b- and c-grade modules.  These modules once were, and still should be rejected.  In past years, they would have been rejected.  Correction, they might have been used for a project in the developing world – and this is not okay either. 

Lower grade and thus lower quality PV modules are a recent phenomenon, just as bankability (a phrase developed by the people who brought us the former financial crisis and the current Libor crisis) is relatively recent.  Previously, industry participants knew that delivering high quality, clean, reliable electricity were the industry goals and that these goals were not mutually exclusive from the goal of profitability.  There are those who would laud the availability of low price b- and c-grade technology as progress – they are wrong. There are those who just want to get PV into the ground or up on the roof as fast as possible even at the risk of failure – after all, the modules are a commodity and can be easily replaced…right?  Wrong.

It is time we decided what business we are really in and what we want this business to be – are we part of the solution towards cleaner air for all and quality jobs, or are we simply developing a commodity that can be bought and sold with little or no moral imperative? Most of us got into solar to effect a change and to have careers that publically reflected our values.  Is it “touchy-feely” to want to change the world?  Maybe so, but perhaps we can marry the values of clean, reliable energy with profits. 

As manufacturer failures pile up like a massive traffic accident it should be impossible to deny that prices are too low, yet, sadly, many continue to claim that the low prices are progress.  In the U.S. the decision to apply tariffs (retroactively) to PV technology from China has divided the industry.  The common goal of deploying solar has been largely put aside in favor of industry infighting. Rhetorical question … can a small, emerging industry afford to expend its energy in this manner?  Meanwhile, acceptance of lower quality products at low prices has become commonplace and this will likely cost us dearly. 

So, as in the movie Network, rise up out of your seats, step away from your computers and refuse to accept any less than the highest quality PV – insist on support for R&D so that technology advancement (lower cost, higher efficiency) can continue.  Work together to standardize permitting costs because that alone would lower installation costs.  In sum, go back to solar’s roots, where changing the world was indeed the point of it all. 

                 Figure 1: Average Prices to the first point of sale and for Inventory

Lead image: Grade A via Shutterstock

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