Now the World Agrees with Us: There is a Difference between Solar Panels

If you have seen one solar module, have you seen them all? Many in the solar industry have long argued that solar panels are a commodity, interchangeable at the whim of the developer. We have strongly disagreed, but we conceded that the market has not agreed with us. 

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All you need to do is ask the many companies who fill the halls of bankruptcy courts around the country and abroad about the market forces that drove them out of business. This argument has been settled—until Tom Woody authored a New York Times article that solar panel quality is a growing concern within the solar industry. Maybe the world is beginning to agree with us, but in any event, you should become an educated consumer as you look at which panels to put on your roof for the next 25 years.

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STS Certified, a French company that tests solar panels looked at 215,000 PV modules in 2011 and 2012. The defect rate on those tested climbed from 7.8 percent to 13 percent. Marlborough, Massachusetts-based company, Solarbuyer, according to the Times article, “discovered defect rates of 5.5 percent to 22 percent during audits of 50 Chinese factories over the last 18 months, said Ian Gregory, the company’s senior marketing director.” Gregory is also quoted as saying he found some companies using materials past the use by date to lower their production costs.

“Non-Chinese manufactures have had quality problems as well.” Panels made by an American manufacturer housed on a warehouse in the Inland Empire region of California “were only two years into their expected 25-year life span when they began to fail.” Unfortunately, even panels that ‘work’ can still not be up to standards. Solar panels do lose efficiency over the course of their lifetime, but are guaranteed a specific power output for a number of years. Taking the expected rate of decay into account, Metecontrol, a German solar monitoring firm, reviewed 30,000 European installations and found a whopping 80 percent were underperforming.

The article reveals startling quality concerns that should catch the attention of anyone seeking to buy solar panels. We’re not suggesting you become scared out of purchasing solar panels. In fact, we encourage it. It’s the nature of our business. What we are saying is that you need to educate yourself on what you’re buying and who you’re buying solar panels from.

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It is crucial important to choose companies with proven track records. Whether buying panels for your house or investing in solar for your business, our advice hasn’t changed in the last 3 years. Not all solar manufacturers are the same. Buying a cheap panel to save upfront costs can go badly in the long run. Most manufacturers will and should giving you 20-25 year warranties, but not all of them may stick around to fulfill it.

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 Suntech is a perfect example of how important it is to identify quality manufacturers. The company’s founder Shi Zhengrong was worth over 2 billion dollars in 2008, just 7 years after its founding. As noted in Is the Sun Going Down in Suntech, the company recently defaulted on a $541 million loan. The company’s stock, valued around $85 in late 2007, is now under $1. From Suntech’s product listings on its website, “Suntech Photovoltaic Modules have a 10 year warranty on material and workmanship as well as a 25 year linear warranty on performance.” The company has said it “will work with any Court-appointed administrators to ensure all of Suntech’s product warranty obligations are met.” Those who own Suntech panels will rest a little easier when that becomes a guarantee.

This isn’t to say all Suntech produced subpar products. The company didn’t rise to where it did in 2008 by producing malfunctioning panels, and many factors contributed to the company’s downfall. The point is to look into what who you’re buying from. Least expensive does not always equate to best purchase. Knowing the differences from panel to panel as well as researching both manufacturer track record and warranties are crucial steps to investing in solar PV.

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