In an area so suffused with well-intentioned idealism, perhaps it is good to be reminded that the solar business is after all a business. In any new industry that has been grown by leaps and bounds, taking a high toll on the weaker and less advantaged players, there is bound to be corner cutting and cost shaving. The photovoltaics industry, it seems, is no exception.
At the beginning of this year, an article in the trade publication PVTech that said that "quality issues threaten to give solar a black eye" drew just one comment, despite its examples of projects gone wrong and evidence from testing organizations indicating that defect rates were rising sharply. But reader response may have been so weak only because the problem was already widely recognized in the trade. Two months before, when RenewableEnergyWorld.com ran a piece by Ucilia Wang about a possible rise of poorly made PV modules, it drew 43 comments. An article in yesterday's New York Times about anxiety over defective PV panels has attracted 64 comments so far.
Naturally one wonders how much flammable material those commenting have been adding to the fire. My personal expectation was that at least one-third, perhaps even-two thirds, of the comments might say something like this: "Four years ago I bought a rooftop PV system from so-and-so, which was supposed to generate most of my home's electricity for twenty years and pay for itself in ten. Already it has degraded to the point where it's producing hardly any power at all, and I'm being told that if I want to buy a replacement system from a highly reputable supplier like Sanyo/Panasonic, Sunpower, LG, or Solar World, I will have to cough up twice what I paid originally."
So it was quite a surprise to discover upon scanning the reactions to the three articles to find that not a single one of the 108 comments complained of a bad personal experience with PV. That strongly suggests, to me anyway, that the concern about rising defect rates in the PV panel business—though obviously a serious matter—may be somewhat overblown.
This is not to say that among the comments all is peaches and cream. Among those reacting to the articles, it is widely taken for granted that we are indeed seeing a quite acute quality control problem in solar manufacturing. Readers are quick to blame shoddy Chinese manufacturing, test organizations that are allegedly in bed with their clients, warranties that become dead letters when those issuing them go out of business, and Walmart-style economizing on the part of customers. "You get what you pay for," is a common refrain.
Says one engineer with 14 years in PV: " Put my dirty fingers on every part of the process from weighing 'rock' through to stuffing the box. There are many corners that can be cut and many are. Whenever you replace precision tooling with low cost labor and SPC [statistical process control] with guesswork there's going to be problems. Ditto when customer stinginess makes them tone-deaf to quality statements."
At the same time, a number of other comments from suppliers claim they never have seen any problem in their personal part of the business. "We have been installing solar since 2007 and have never had a solar module fail. Ever. Not one." "I have been a PV installer since 1998 and I have never had a module failure."
Whatever the big picture turns out to be when industry analysts have developed reliable, comprehensive statistics, the immediate lessons for consumers are clear enough: Find out who makes the PV material going into your modules; ask a lot of questions about how panels are put together and how they will be installed; make sure your warranty says what you think it says, and that it will somehow survive the company you're signing with. Don't be penny wise but pound foolish.
Photo: Imaginechina via AP Images