International Safety Standards for Photovoltaic Modules Pave the Way for Global Market Access

Increasingly, commercial businesses and residential homeowners are exploring interest in photovoltaic (PV) module installations, in recognition of the financial savings, environmental advantages, brand enhancements and other benefits that come with leveraging them. In fact, according to the Mercom Capital Group, global installations of PV were expected to reach 76 GW in 2016, a 48 percent increase over 2015.

With the industry continuing to grow at a rapid pace, today’s solar panels are now tested for many things of which the primary importance is safety in the event of a failure. Since PV modules are essentially a form of electricity installed on the rooftops of residential homes and commercial buildings, they are accessible to people and can present potential safety hazards. Standards, therefore, have been put in place to help ensure that these products are designed so that if a failure should occur, it does not result in a safety hazard, such as electric shock or fire.

The International Electrotechnical Commission first published IEC 61730, the international safety standard for PV modules, in October 2004. In the 12 years since, the industry has been evaluating how the PV module technology has held up in the field, providing insights for updating the standard so that it encompasses the current state of the technology and innovation in PV module designs and materials. The second edition of IEC 61730, published in August 2016, updates existing standards and sets new requirements  for industry manufacturers and reflects those key learnings to help reduce product failure, including:

  • Environmental effect on module. Depending on the geographic location, PV modules are exposed to environmental extremes, whether it be heat, cold, humidity, aridness, etc. These environmental stressors make a measurable difference on the efficacy of a module and cause a deviation in the performance of a module from one location to the next. More importantly, exposure to environmental extremes may cause a product failure and, therefore, a potential safety hazard to people.
  • Integrity of materials over time. The degree to which materials stood up over time was inconsistent. Additionally, newer and better materials have emerged onto the market since IEC 61730 was first introduced. In response to this, the updated standards cover factors that influence module insulation requirements, such as material groups, installation type, location of the installation, pollution degree, system voltages, and over-voltages that may appear in the system.

UL heavily contributed its technical expertise and hands-on experiences with PV modules to the second edition of IEC 61730.  This updated standard now becomes the baseline for the International Harmonization Committee (IHC), which will reconcile IEC 61730 with UL 1703, the current U.S. national requirement.  At present, manufacturers must test a single module multiple times in order for that product to meet the specific requirements for each global market.

Even though manufacturers must test to international and UL standards, the fundamental need for safety within each region isn’t that different. In order to lessen the burden on the manufacturer and make it easier to get global market access in the most cost effective, economical way, UL will be helping manufacturers evaluate PV modules to the new harmonized standard.

Within the next year, when the industry moves to this harmonized standard, manufacturers also will need to test for national differences in each market since the electrical codes are different and determine deviations with the IEC standard. It is true the new standard will reduce testing and therefore the overall cost toward global market access. This creates a significant reduction in the cost and time-to-market delays faced by manufacturers as a result of testing to multiple standards.

UL works every day to help ensure that not only is our power safe, but that the future of our power and technology is sustainable. As a contributing member of the IEC working group, UL has deep understanding of the new requirements in IEC 61730 for specific market applications. By working with businesses and manufacturers across the globe to provide single-source testing and certification services, UL helps deliver valuable savings of both time and money, and expand market access.

For more information on this topic, you can click here for a free, 60-minute webinar, “Safety Qualification 2.0 for IEC 61730,” that reviews the updated safety standards for PV modules.

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Bengt Jaeckel is a principal engineer (PE) in UL’s global renewable energy initiative. This involves the whole value chain in the photovoltaic sector, starting with wafers and cells and ending with large PV installations and their challenges. Bengt’s experience in the solar industry started more than five years before joining UL in 2012. Throughout his career, Bengt has been involved in testing and evaluating all major PV technologies, including crystalline silicon, CdTe, CIGS/CIS and a-Si/c-Si. Currently, Bengt is focused on the reliability and quality testing of PV modules used in large PV applications. Bengt received a PhD at Darmstadt University of Technology in Materials Science in 2005, where he focused on surface-and interface-formation of semiconductor interfaces used in PV applications.

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