How long will your solar panels last, and how well will they perform?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Millions of low-quality solar panels have been installed on Australian roofs, mostly because mums and dads lacked the expertise to differentiate panel quality.

share
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Commercial-Solar-Panels

Millions of low-quality solar panels have been installed on Australian roofs in the past decade. This unfortunately occurred because our solar market was primarily comprised of residential installations, and because mums and dads lack the expertise to differentiate panel quality.

Therefore a great deal of responsibility for selling good quality product falls onto the heads of PV retailers. And any PV retailer interested in remaining profitable for more than six months has some self-interest in choosing a good quality panel manufacturer, as:

  1. If the solar panels you sell fail in early years, then you will face labour, material, and back-office costs in replacing them and supporting your customers
  2. If the solar panels you sell underperform, you customers will be unhappy, and unlikely to recommend your business. Depending on the performance claims you made, under Australian Consumer Law you may even be financially liable to pay your customers for the energy you failed to deliver.
  3. If your solar panel manufacturer goes bust – which can happen from selling poor quality product, selling below cost, being small and unable to compete, or for any myriad of commercial reasons – then you may be left unable to service warranty claims yourself.

Given this apparent self-interest, why does Australia have a large proportion of Tier 3 solar panels – as much as 40% in recent years, according to Green Energy Trading. I believe that “PV retailers wanting to make a quick buck” is too simplistic an answer. Competitive pressure to sell a low-cost product certainly is certainly part of the reason, but there are plenty of quality solar panel brands that are impressively affordable – as we’ll see clear example of in a moment.

Consumer preferences certainly play a part. But I think I think one of the major reasons is because solar industry professionals don’t have enough information to make an informed decision – in summary, a lack of a universal testing standard for solar panel longevity and whole-of-life performance means solar companies and their customers are making sub-optimal decisions.

At present, for a solar panel to be sold in Australia, it has to meet a set of minimum standards that ensure its safe operation, catches infant mortality failure mechanisms, and which grade its power production levels under standardised test conditions. Meeting these product standards is pretty much a requirement of being installed in any developed country.

But these “golden panel” tests don’t provide any information about how the panel will perform over time, in real life conditions, nor how long the panel will last. Indeed, as a recent bulletin from the CEC illustrated, some of the panels sold internationally contain different components or don’t meet the rated power output of the ‘golden panels’ they supplied when meeting their IEC minimum requirements.

Last week, the CEC presented problems uncovered by its PV module testing program. Our 2016 testing program targeted seven manufacturers based on complaints and reports received by the CEC. We purchased the modules from local trade suppliers and sent them to be tested at a university laboratory.

The tests revealed a number of issues:

  • Modules from four manufacturers measured an average of 4.4% below their rated output.
  • More seriously, five manufacturers had substituted components during the production of the modules. Their modules were subsequently de-listed.

These findings reinforce the need for retailers and installers to use quality modules to protect themselves and their customers. Please consider getting your own tests done to confirm the modules you use are compliant.

The lack of a universal testing standard for solar panel longevity and whole-of-life performance is an issue not constrained to Australia – it’s something that is being addressed globally; albeit at a slow pace. One of the leaders in independent testing is DNV-GL, and its “PV Module Reliability Scorecard Report 2016” provides illuminating reading for anyone interested in product longevity.

DNV-GL’s report summarises the various studies on panel degradation rates, and provides a great summary illustration on the many ways which panels can fail or wear out – shown below. The report highlights an NREL study that shows the median panel degradation rate is 0.4-0.5%/year for high quality panels, but 0.9-1.0%/year for all panels tested.

Considering solar panels are commonly sold as having a 25+ year performance warranty, as well as a 10+ year product warranty. But considering “85% of the 234 GW of installed global PV capacity has been in the field for less than five years” how confident can you be that the solar panels you’re buying (or selling) will last the distance?

DNV-GL

DNV-GL’s testing simulates the real-life conditions that solar panels will face over their entire lifetime. It does this by subjecting the panels to thousands of hours of testing through thermal cycling, damp heat, humidity-freeze, dynamic mechanical loads, and PID – more extreme, extended, and lengthy tests than occur in the IEC minimum standards.

The testing was performed on panels sourced from the market (rather than ‘golden panels’ used in IEC testing), but was constrained to manufacturers who volunteered to be tested: CSUN, Hanwha, JA Solar, Jinko, Kyocera, Phono Solar, Q-Cells, REC, RECOM, Tenksolar, Trina, Yingli, and ZNShine.

The results indicate a wide variation between the best and worst panel in each test. For example, the top-performing panel after the Thermal Cycling test suffered only 1% degradation; the worst suffered 35% degradation; for the Damp Heat Test and the PID test, the range of results was from 0% degradation at best to 58% degradation at worst. The range of degradation that occurs after some tests should be cause for alarm – though there are many panels that pass the tests with flying colours, there are some panels out there that simply won’t last the distance.

Of course, these tests don’t perfectly replicate the conditions that an individual panel will encounter, but they provide a far better indication of how a panel will respond to the environmental stresses that nature could throw at it over its lifetime. For example, most panels in Australia won’t encounter the snow-focussed environment simulated by the Humidity-Freeze test, and some of the tests emulate humid or desert locations.

But in my mind, simply volunteering your panel to be subjected to this more rigorous test indicates a manufacturer is serious about panels that will perform well for a long life. In DNV-GL’s words, “The mere participation in the PVEL Product Qualification Program indicates already the importance that the participating manufacturers place on the reliability of their products. Because of this the average and median results presented here may be better than the average and median results of the industry taken as a whole.”

Multiple Choice Question:
A solar panel, sold today will last for 25 years.

  1. TRUE
  2. FALSE
  3. We don’t know yet

panel-article-1

The table below summarises where each brand was listed as a top performer against a test, or whether it was listed as having passed the test. (Where a manufacturer isn’t listed against a test indicates they either didn’t submit to that test in the first place, or they didn’t wish to be named in the results for that test). The table illustrates that the top performers across the range of tests were Kyocera and Phono Solar.

panel-article-2

What stands out at me from these results:

  1. Now, having visited Japan a couple of times, I’m impressed at Japanese mastery at whatever they set their mind to, whether it be knives, solar panels, or whisky J. But Japan’s solar market has been soaking up most of Japanese-made solar panels for quite a few years now, making it difficult to get your hands on Kyocera panels at a reasonable price.
  2. Phono Solar’s has excellent results for a panel that is very affordable – indeed it’s about half the price of Kyocera panels.
  3. The location of the manufacturer doesn’t necessarily indicate quality – Chinese manufacturers perform quite well in the list.

In DNV-GL’s words: “We find three key takeaways from the Scorecard’s test results.

  • Overall, many module vendors performed well across all tests. For example, 8 manufacturers degraded less than 3% after 4 times the IEC duration in Thermal Cycling (the IEC pass/fail criteria for 200 cycles is 5% degradation).
  • Two manufacturers performed in the top group on every test: Kyocera and Phono Solar.
  • Roughly 55 – 60% of top group modules were manufactured in China. This is roughly equivalent to the ratio of Chinese module participation in the full PV Module Reliability Scorecard. This demonstrates that manufacturing location is not a good proxy for reliability.”

Now, DNV-GL’s isn’t the only scorecard out there. BNEF’s tiering system is another product evaluation method that is often misunderstood to directly assess product quality. Indeed, BNEF’s Tier 1 List states explicitly “We strongly recommend that module purchasers and banks to do not use [BNEF’s Tier 1] list as a measure of quality, but instead consult a technical due diligence firm such as …. DNV-GL” (and others). BNEF is actually a quantitative measure of bankability, not quality. There are also ratings schemes that measure manufacturer’s environmental sustainability and financial viability, which can also be considerations for module purchasers. In Australia, we also have some local schemes operating:

  • The CEC (which manages the list of panels that meet the minimum standard) also publish which panels have met some additional independent quality measures. Look for “independent quality measures” in the list of approved solar modules.
  • The CEC has recently updated the terms and conditions of listing a solar panel, which place more stringent requirements upon panel manufacturers or importers, in particular to provide appropriate levels of customer support and meet warranty requirements. Look for “Meets new CEC T&Cs” in the list of approved solar modules
  • The CEC has also been testing independently-sourced products to ensure they meet the claims made on their international certificates, and de-listing products that produce less power than quoted, or use different materials to those originally specified.
  • There are some reference sites where in-field performance of a number of panel brands is tested and compared, in a single environment. The DKA solar centre is an example of this.
  • We also have the Positive Quality scheme (run by the Australian Solar Council), which unfortunately hasn’t reached critical mass with four manufacturers listed.

To summarise,

  1. It’s in the self-interest of a PV retailer to sell product that will perform well over a long life
  2. The only way we will know the actual performance of a solar panel over 25 years is by monitoring it for 25 years. But by that time the technology will have evolved and improved, and so the outcome will be meaningless.
  3. Highly-accelerated lifetime testing can identify which panels are more likely to survive the environmental extremes solar panels could be exposed to over their full life.
  4. BNEF’s bankability list is not a measure of panel quality.
  5. There is no universal test of panel quality, so it is up to solar retailers to do their due diligence, using tests such as DNV-GL’s.
  6. DNV-GL’s test rates Kyocera and Phono Solar panels as likely to perform best for many years of typical environmental exposure.
Warwick Johnston is director of Sunwiz
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

18 Comments
  1. Jo 3 years ago

    After being scared in the first few lines by
    “Millions of low-quality solar panels have been installed on Australian roofs in the past decade. …” and
    “… Australia have a large proportion of Tier 3 solar panels – as much as 40% in recent years …”
    the poor reader had to read to the very last paragraph to find to his relief that
    “…BNEF’s bankability list is not a measure of panel quality. ”

    But that only helped insiders who could decipher the cryptic hints in the middle of the article that BNEF and the Tier ranking is the same thing.
    I see this as biased journalism.

    • JeffJL 3 years ago

      Biased in what direction? What do you think they are trying to achieve with this article? Did you mean poor as it is not really understandable to the lay person?

      • Jo 3 years ago

        I think this is fighting the price decay in the solar business by indicating that cheap must be bad.
        And it is scaremongering by first declaring that millions of bad panels have been installed in Australia and then later stating that actually it is not really the panel quality but the BNEF’s bankability the author is talking about. But why than starting with such a scare mongering sentence in the first place?

        • JeffJL 3 years ago

          I see your complaints and agree they are justified.

          Your comment that it is biased journalism though I cannot see. Perhaps ‘click bait’ or could be clearer.

  2. George Darroch 3 years ago

    Price isn’t a good guide to quality either, unfortunately.

  3. solarguy 3 years ago

    So Warwick, what does it indicate when there is an omission ( good or great) mean? Failure or poor?

  4. Andy 3 years ago

    Great article Warwick, would also recommend Fraunhofer PVDI and Atlas 25+. Unfortunately there isn’t equal solar access to all arrays at DKA so difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about performance from it

  5. trackdaze 3 years ago

    As with everything…do your homework people.

    • Tom 3 years ago

      How! By reading blog sites and internet forums? Because there isn’t a whole lot better and accessible evidence out there.

      This is from a bloke about to build a house with a 7kW PV capacity and some batteries – I want quality stuff, but all the “research” is witchcraft.

      • nakedChimp 3 years ago

        Check out Photon in Germany, they run panels outside for years now and list the deratings.

        Personally after watching all this for years and having 10kW on the roof from DAQO and if I were in the position to buy again – I’d do the same thing.
        Today though I’d try to get panels that are glass front & back (no EVA that can break down). I don’t know how the PU glue at the edge will last the test of time, but if you’re not confident you can always get some aluminium U profile from Ullrich and stick it on there with neutral cure silicone 😉

        As for hybrid-inverters/batteries.. there is no solution on the market right now that would satisfy my needs, which are:
        – independent island net (own 50Hz normal) behind inverter
        – input from solar/battery/mains (in that order, mains as backup for emergencies)
        – at least 5kW continuous, better 10kW
        – 400Vdc bus between sources of energy and the inverter
        – battery size/tech adaptable with 400Vdc connection

        • Trent Deverell 3 years ago

          Sunny Island
          or
          Victron MultiGrid

          • nakedChimp 3 years ago

            The Victron uses 48Vdc between batteries/itself, is 3kW rated (derates if higher temps than 25deg C) and based around a 120/230Vac bus system really, not 400Vdc.

            Sunny Island is similar and on top of it pretty expensive in down under.

            So yeah, what I want isn’t available yet unfortunately.

          • Trent Deverell 3 years ago

            You do know that you can parallel the Victron Multi’s, and create 3-phase output, and additionally get creative with coupled solar inverters.

            As for 400vdc battery… why? smaller cable sizing is about the only practical reason.

            Keep in mind you can just as well use Pb or Lithium, and list is growing, the 48v DC bus is well established… but a rig capable of delivering 5kva+ running off any battery for more than a hour or two is going to cost a packet just for the battery regardless of DC bus voltage and technology used..

            In any case ‘d suggest you get your eyes checked, as you only need to refer to any
            of the Redflow related articles to see the Victron/Zcell creations

            But in the end if you something cheap-as off the shelf style, with capability…… you might be waiting a while.

      • handbaskets'r'us 3 years ago

        Have faith Tom.
        I think most panels work well for years unless you buy them from the reject shop.
        I put 5kW in 3 arrays -1.5, 1.5, 2kW up on three roofs 12 years ago. Chinese. -Didn’t do any research. Just did it.
        Got half back from the Kevin07 tax break.
        So it cost me less than 7k.
        Getting in early, I got the WA 47c /unit feed in tariff.
        I pay no bills and get about $2k back in cheques P/A.- running a home, workshop and business.
        About 7 years ago I upped the anti and added another kW, overclocking my maximum allowed 5kW inverter capacity. The cheapo CMS inverters have continued to perform, -the panels look in great shape so far, no sign of corrosion or deterioration, tho I’m no scientist.
        In summer I get just shy of 50kWh on a good day.
        That’s a lot of clean air.
        Although I jumped on the solar pv, I’m waiting on battery prices to fall, as they will dramatically over the next few years.
        Surely most of the abovementioned systems, with a couple of Tesla batteries would get you some 30 years of reliable, clean power?

  6. Kevan Daly 3 years ago

    We need an article like this for inverter quality.

  7. Matt S 3 years ago

    Thanks Warwick. I wonder why Sunpower dont show a mention. They push hard their preferable durability. Do you know why they’re not included?

  8. Radbug 3 years ago

    There’s 20 grams of silver in each panel, so, how do you recycle these panels?

  9. Kent Pomare 2 years ago

    SUNPOWER E and X series modules. No representation ?

Comments are closed.

Get up to 3 quotes from pre-vetted solar (and battery) installers.