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Reliability, Part III: Solar Panel Manufacturers Sound Off

There’s no tangible evidence that Todd Woody, author of the now infamous New York Times article on the reliability of solar panels, has a hidden agenda to destroy public confidence in solar.
It just feels that way.

Panel manufacturers reacted strongly to the charges leveled in Woody’s piece. Solar Power World asked them to respond to Woody. They had a lot to say.

Quality As Core Value
Chinese and U.S. manufacturers agree: The problem of panel reliability is critical to the future of the industry and must be addressed.

“With the traction solar-storage systems are gaining, the solar industry is poised to take another great leap,” says Jill Hansen, director of U.S. marketing for Talesun. “This could dissuade some consumers from investing in solar.”

Quality should be a core value that pervades a manufacturer’s entire operation, solar industry leaders say.

“The industry can’t afford to sit back while inexperienced and lax panel producers turn back the clock on the industry’s amazing early progress,” says Ben Santarris, head of corporate communications and sustainability for the Americas for SolarWorld. “That’s why we have called on the world’s solar industry to establish, embrace and promote an industrywide acceptable quality limit (AQL) for the production of crystalline silicon solar panels sold in the U.S. market.”

The problem for many panel manufacturers, says Mark Mendenhall, president of Trina Solar Americas, is weak balance sheets. Recent consolidation and bankruptcies of some panel manufacturers is the result of companies who couldn’t withstand the sudden drop in panel prices.

Many companies walked the razor’s edge of financial solvency and lost. As the companies failed, management often cut quality corners on panel production, leading to poorly-made panels, Mendenhall says.

“Our strong balance sheet and conservative growth model means we’ve never had to cut corners on quality,” Mendenhall says. “Quality is, and always will be, a core value of ours. It’s incumbent on all solar panel manufacturers to demonstrate the quality-control mechanisms they have in place.”

Do Long Warranties Make Sense?
SolarWorld offers a 30-year linear power-performance warranty on its glass-glass solar panels. Trina Solar offers a 10-year product warranty, a 25-year power-output warranty and a 25-year performance linear-degradation warranty. Talesun offers a standard 25-year power output warranty.

But with the recent upheaval in the panel segment of the industry, do warranties of that length even make sense?

“We are seeing a greater valuation of quality within the industry,” Mendenhall says. “Developers and financiers are opting for modules that will afford them the best long-term returns.”

SolarWorld’s Santarris believes in long warranties, but only under certain conditions.

“Long warranties are realistic if they’re based on sound manufacturing and high-quality products,” Santarris says. “Only by gauging a manufacturer’s track record can consumers confidently put money down on solar panels under 25-year performance warranties.”

Santarris says consumers should ask basic questions to evaluate their panel producer and make an informed buying decision:

How long has the company been manufacturing modules?
How many recalls has it had?
What’s its warranty return rate?

“Most consumers don’t need a thorough understanding of testing protocols,” Santarris says. “They should, however, gather common-sense information.”

By the time consumers are making their decisions, internal and external labs should have evaluated the modules to demonstrate their long-term reliability, Talesun’s Hansen says.

“Module manufacturers spend millions of dollars on testing,” Hansen says. “It’s about the economics of systems and rate of return that will ultimately tell the tale.”

Hansen says consumers should not worry about the long-term reliability of the solar industry, panels or otherwise. She’s convinced it’s here to stay.

“Some technologies may last much longer than anticipated,” Hansen says. “Solar will continue to evolve because it’s viable, and there is still so much potential in its evolution and application.”

Written by: Frank Andorka, Editorial Director of Solar Power World Magazine