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Quality, Quality, Quality – It Should Not Be a Minimum Standard

All conferences sell trends – at Intersolar Europe trends included an uptick in prices for modules in advance of the August 6 tariff increase on Chinese modules, self-consumption as the next driver for PV industry growth, utility charges for grid-access as well as the next big market, application, technology, and so on and so forth. A trend worth starting is a return to high quality standards as well as a rejection of adherence to the ever lowering of the bar of what constitutes minimum standards.

Quality, quality, quality – the PV industry has been addicted to low prices and unprofitable growth for too long, and, as just as an alcoholic or addict often needs to hit bottom before struggling back to the surface, PV may well be nearing the point of blessed return to higher standards after years of slippage. After all, energy consumers (basically, all of us) should expect high quality, long lived, reliable electricity.  Unfortunately, for the past several years PV has been training their customers to expect cheap – even close to free – solar equipment.  In the U.S., the lease model promises no money down – time for solar to stop being a used car lot and get back to selling a premium ride.

Affordable is a different concept from cheap – affordable is a value that takes into account providing a margin to the selling side as well as a price to the buying side that reflects the quality of the product and the value (or utility) of this product to the user.  Potential energy consumers should be able to consider a variety of options in this regard and the PV industry should educate potential customers about what they should expect from a high quality electricity delivery system.  Luxury car buyers are buying a lifestyle and are willing to put a price on this lifestyle – PV system owners are also buying a lifestyle – and may well be willing to pay for it if they are taught to understand what this means. 

Over the past few years the solar industry has gotten drunk on the concept of accelerated growth year after year – growth, it seems, at any negative price and/or margin. Though it is rarely spoken about, for years manufacturers sold off-spec modules into the developing world for off-grid applications (often at a higher price than to the industrialized grid-connected customer base). Now off-spec modules or cells are sold to module assemblers and developers globally as a C-grade product.  When these modules fail the blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of the PV industry as a whole. The buyer will not take into account their culpability for seeking out the cheapest possible price for the solar system that was either leased or financed or bought with cash.  The PV industry will, unfortunately, shoulder the blame for the poor quality that it accepted almost without question.  The cost of strong growth over the past few years may well be a humbling one. 

There are several large conferences to come and at these conferences journalists and others will be querying participants and analysts about the next big trend.  The first trend mentioned should be a return to higher standards of quality.  The next trend should be to develop business models that appropriately reflect the true costs of solar (free fuel for one) and that serve the buyer and seller equally well. Another trend is to pull together as an industry and speak to politicians with one voice – solidarity and voting power are always compelling to politicians. 

There does appear to be recognition of the need to refocus efforts on quality technology development and system deployment.  A new industry has grown up providing due diligence on installed systems (are they working? how long will they work? how can they be fixed?), and on module quality.  The insurance industry always serves as a bellwether of future disaster, and there are expensive insurance products available for PV system performance as well as other concerns.  These adjunct businesses pop up because a problem is expected, but they will not ameliorate the bad press that a reputation for poor quality will bring. Bluntly, solar is not alone in the energy technology universe, there are substitutes.

It is not too late for the solar industry, globally, to re-take control and raise the bar on quality standards.  This is a trend worth starting – no more minimum standards for the solar industry, we can leap over a higher bar and then keep moving the bar up, not down.

Lead image: Peeling Paint via Shutterstock

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