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Solar PV Module Quality Concerns Still Exist for Developing World

For the global solar photovoltaic industry, it is not a question of whether poor-quality or lesser-quality PV modules are making their way into the marketplace. They are. The more relevant question is when will the industry begin to see the effects of these lesser quality modules, and where will the impacts will be felt?

Conversations with solar industry executives from across the value chain reveal concerns about low-quality materials being used in the manufacturing of solar modules, and indicate which global solar markets are likely to be affected.

Materials Are the Issue

Unlike pretty much any other industry, PV manufacturers have to make a product that is expected to last for 25 years or more in harsh environments. And the technology is proven, according to Jenya Meydbray, CEO of PV Evolution Labs. Next year is the 60th anniversary of crystalline silicon PV. The first PV panel is kept in an AT&T museum and it still works. "Fundamentally the technology is quite mature," he said. What it comes down to today is quality control and materials."

Built correctly, a module can easily last for 25 years, said Meydbray. Built incorrectly or with unproven materials and "they can last 5 years, 2 years, or less than that," he said.

For a long time, that build quality was the great unknown. Ian Gregory, Managing Partner of SolarBuyer, explained that it was only recently that people realized that due to severe shrinking margins manufacturers had started using cheaper materials and were trying to figure out how to use them quickly. EPCs and developers then started asking to get a look inside the factory, and once inside they discovered uncertified and unproven materials were being used in modules.

DuPont is a material supplier to the solar industry with a proven track record. It has been supplying materials to PV manufacturers ever since the first module was made. But new companies are cropping up trying to deliver similar materials at a lower price. DuPont's Conrad Burke explained that these new entrants have "really unproven durability data and test grounds." He wonders how a company that has only existed for two years can offer a 25-year warranty.

Durability and reliability are the keys to long-term module performance, said Dr. Govindasamy TamizhMani, ("Mani"), President of TUV Rheinland's Photovoltaic Testing Lab (PTL). He suggested that the industry is going to continue introducing new materials. "We have no choice," he said, speaking of the race to bring down the cost per watt of the panel, which the industry must do. Mani said that the accelerated testing offered by TUV's PTL weeds out poor performing modules. With accelerated testing, modules are put into chambers and subjected to very high heat and humidity for up to 4 months. This test, said Mani, helps identify if and when modules will fail.

But the problem with accelerated testing, according to solar consultant K.V. Ravi, always has been how well they represent real life. Assumptions and projections are possible but since you can't test every single module, how can you be sure that accelerated testing will really show failures in five, 10, 15 years down the line, he asks.

With a PhD in Materials Science, Ravi has been involved in the manufacturing world for decades, having worked for major players including Intel and Applied Materials and most recently as Chief Technology Officer of start-up Crystal Solar. "The fear is a lot of product is getting out there which looks pretty, looks beautiful, and works great when you put them up," he said. "Then over time you don't know what's going to happen."

Ravi fears that within the next five years regions that don't focus on PV module quality will begin to experience major module failures in some of the solar farms that have been built.

"When you are making millions of modules, there is no way you can test these modules for reliability. You can test them for instantaneous performance - which they all do - and then it's up to the customer to worry about whether the thing will last a long time," he said.

Ravi surmised that certain regions are better off than others in terms of procuring quality PV modules. He pointed to Japan as an example of a country that puts quality first, "because it is in their nature to be conscious of quality."

"On the other hand, if you are going to get large amounts of deployment in places like Africa or India or even China," he said, "there you have real concerns because there the customers are not as knowledgeable, not as exposed to this kind of thing," he said.

Off-spec Technology in Developing Regions

Many experts pointed out that there are no manufacturing standards. "None," said SolarBuyer's Gregory. So it is pretty much up to each individual manufacturer to define quality standards, he said. However, when it comes to PV modules themselves, there are lots of material and product certifications and standards. UL, TUV, ISO, MCS and others all exist to ensure that a product meets a certain quality and performance specification right from the start.

Yet, said TUV's Mani, customers don't always know about the standards, and unless they ask for certified modules manufacturers may not deliver them. He said that if manufactures "don't have to spend, they will not spend. So it is up to the buyers to be sure that they are getting what they are supposed to get." Mani explained that sometimes a certification gets updated or modified and unless the module buyer knows about it and specifically asks if the module is certified for the updated standard, they may not be getting it.

Nevertheless, off-spec technology is making it into the marketplace. PVEL's Meydbray said that manufacturers have communicated to him that they ship higher-grade modules to the U.S. and Europe and lower-grade modules to Southeast Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, and that worries him. "Thailand is a very big solar market, China is a much bigger solar market. India is a big solar market," he said. If those investors do not get the returns they are expecting, that's not good for the overall industry, he said. "Those institutional investors have IRR expectations and return expectations, and if the underlying asset generating the cash flow doesn't perform, then the cash flow is adversely impacted and the investment is adversely impacted."

Customers, It's up to You

The theme replayed again and again during these conversations about quality was that it is up to the marketplace to demand it. Know what materials are going into your modules. Remain educated on the latest PV module standards. If you can afford it, enlist the services of a third-party verification company.

Maybe, just maybe, don't put such a premium on getting the lowest price. That's the advice of Ian Miller, VP and General Manager for project developer Mainstream. "Price is only one factor," he said. "Whether you are talking about the total system at the end of the day or the module at the end of the day, we would be remiss to only focus on price," he explained.

Miller, who works on residential up through utility-scale projects, said there are many other factors that industry developers should think about. "Whether it be the customer experience on the residential space…the quality, the workmanship, the O&M, the longevity of that system," he said. "So if I [were to] chose, pricing actually would not be number one on my list, but it would be up there closely tied."

Finally, pay very little attention to your warranty. According to Solarbuyer's Gregory: "The best thing that a buyer or developer should do today is to look at a warranty and say 'I shouldn't have to rely on this. I shouldn't need this. This shouldn't be my sole main means of protecting quality.'"

Lead image: Solar panel via Shutterstock

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