Solar Industry Plagued by Defects

Socializing the Costs of Transmission
May 1, 2013
The California Renewable Energy Experience
July 15, 2013

Solar panels that fail just two years into their twenty-five-year life cycle. Protective coatings on solar panels that cause fires. These are the findings of a new report by the New York Times, which claims that the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis of frightening proportions.

Just how big is the problem? No one knows. According to the report, “There are no industrywide figures about defective solar panels. And when defects are discovered, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret, making accountability in the industry all the more difficult.”

But consider the case of the Inland Empire region of east Los Angeles, where a warehouse rooftop covered in solar panels experiences massive problems just two years into their life, starting a fire that took the system offline for two years and cost the owner hundreds of thousands in lost revenues.

“We need to face up to the fact that corners are being cut,” said Conrad Burke, general manager for 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,” adds Dave Williams, chief executive of San Francisco-based Dissigno. “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.”

With a large portion of solar panels being manufactured in China, and their manufacturers in a competitive market with falling prices, quality concerns over Chinese solar panels pose a real problem for the industry. This past March, for example, Chinese banks forced Suntech, previously the world’s biggest solar manufacturer, into bankruptcy. According to the report, “even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials.”

Cheaper materials that lead to diminished reliability have real consequences for utilities and other end users, especially considering that even perfect solar panels degrade over time and generate less power. In fact, a recent study by German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol of 300,000  solar installations in Europe found that 80% were underperforming. Other testing at two Spanish solar farms found defect rates of nearly 35%.

As calls for more solar power in the United States continue, let’s hope our nation’s policy makers take steps to ensure that the products put into the marketplace live up to their billing.