Solar Power Failing World Wide

Everyone has heard the pitch for solar energy, install solar cells on your roof and get free electricity from the Sun. Sure they cost a lot up front, but they will last 25-30 years—which just happens to be about the payback time given current electricity rates from coal, nuclear and natural gas. So when solar panels start failing in two or three years the economics of solar power collapses like a house of cards. That is exactly what is happening around the world. Cheap Chinese solar panels have flooded the market and are now starting to fail at an alarming rate. Solar panels covering a warehouse roof in Los Angeles were only two years into their expected 25-year life span when they began to fail. Worldwide, solar power adopters are reporting similar problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis. Bright sunlight is illuminating the scam that is solar power just as industry boosters claim solar is on the verge of widespread adoption.

A recent article in the New York Times, normally a green power booster, has exposed a growing scandal at the heart of the solar power industry—solar panels are dying long before their expected lifetimes are up. No one is sure how pervasive the problem is because there are no official industry figures about defective solar panels. Further complicating the matter, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret when defects surface, making accountability in the industry all but impossible. At stake are billions of dollars that have financed solar installations on the premise that solar panels will more than pay for themselves over a quarter century.

Because they have no moving parts a PV module's operating life is largely determined by the stability and resistance to corrosion of the materials from which it is constructed. Manufacturer's guarantees of up to 20 years indicate the expected quality of bulk silicon PV modules currently being produced. There are, however, several failure modes and degradation mechanisms which may reduce the power output or cause the module to fail. Nearly all of these mechanisms are related to water ingress or temperature stress.


Degradation of the anti-reflection coating of a solar cell caused by water vapor ingress.

In the US, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar panel generating capacity exploded from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012, enough to power more than 1.2 million homes. Since almost half that capacity was installed in 2012, panel failure could be a ticking time bomb set to blow up the solar industry.

“I don’t want to be alarmist, but I think quality poses a long-term threat,” said 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.”

Most of the concerns over quality center on China, home to the majority of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity. Inspections of Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers revealed that over the last 18 months even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials. Others are outsourcing production to smaller, less reputable companies. SolarBuyer, a company based in Marlborough, Mass., discovered defect rates of 5.5% to 22% during audits of 50 Chinese factories over the last 18 months.

“We have inspectors in a lot of factories, and it’s not rare to see some big brands being produced in those smaller workshops where they have no control over quality,” said Thibaut Lemoine, general manager of STS Certified, a French-owned testing service. STS evaluated 215,000 photovoltaic modules at its Shanghai laboratory in 2011 and 2012, and found the defect rate had jumped from 7.8% to 13%. In one case, an entire batch of modules from one brand-name manufacturer listed on the New York Stock Exchange proved defective, Mr. Lemoine said. He declined to identify the manufacturer, citing confidentiality agreements.

In Europe and the US, companies that install solar arrays have been forced to switch to less expensive Chinese imports to stay competitive, while industry promoters continue to boast about the dropping cost of solar power. “Based on our testing, some manufacturers are absolutely swapping in cheap Chinese materials to save money,” said Jenya Meydbray, chief executive of PV Evolution Labs, a Californian testing service.

It is not just Chinese solar arrays that are failing—the defective panels installed on the Los Angeles area warehouse were made by an American manufacturer. Furthermore, all solar panels degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time. But a review of 30,000 installations in Europe by the German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol found 80% were under-performing. Testing of six manufacturers’ solar panels at two Spanish power plants by Enertis Solar in 2010 found defect rates as high as 34.5 percent.

Falling quality is but one symptom of over expansion in the solar industry. While year-on-year solar demand continues to grow, production capacity has grown far faster than demand. Competition and falling prices recently forced China's Suntech, the largest solar panel manufacturer in the world, into bankruptcy—and Suntech is not alone. America's Solyndra, Germany's Solar Millennium, and a number of other solar manufacturers in Europe and the US that have been forced to cut back production, file for bankruptcy protection or shut down altogether.


Suntech, the world's largest solar panel maker, is now bankrupt.

These facts give lie to the claim that solar power is mature and competitive. If 25 years are needed to break even, cells that fail in 2.5 years, or even cells that degrade faster then planed, mean solar will never be economically viable. Add the industry secrecy surrounding the low quality of their product and this goes from being a lie to being a scam.

This is what happens when countries make infrastructure engineering decisions based on ideology and political correctness. People around the world must judge their own governments but here in the US, instead of building clean, reliable nuclear power plants, the Obama administration has squandered the American people's money on hyper-expensive crap that will not last. Of course, for Obama it just needs to last until his second term is over so he can proclaim victory and retire, believing he did us all a favor. The lesson here is simple: Never send a community organizer and his lawyer pals to do an engineer's job.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

A few notes

What you describe is a real concern. It is important to note the NYT article is mainly focusing on Chinese manufacturers. When you have an installation with thousands of modules 5.5% is a high rate for defective modules. However, there are also Japanese, American and European manufacturers who have addressed quality issues in the past and have current defective rates lower than 1.5% after 15 years of active modules in the field. Unfortunately the project economics lead developers to use the cheaper solar modules (see price difference between brands: http://webosolar.com/store/en/90-grid-tie-solar-panels) that have higher fail rates.
At current prices PV ROI is a lot less than 20-25 years, specially is cities with higher energy rates. If you go to cities with subsidized electricity then you will be closer to the 20 years but still under that mark.

Well written and

Well written and explained.

w.