The CEC list of approved PV modules now highlights panels that meet a range of higher standards, writes the CEC’s Sandy Pulsford, so buyers have the upper hand.

The Australian solar industry has been built around the expectation that PV modules will last for 25 years or more. This is backed by long product warranties and 25-year performance guarantees. We look back at installations over the last few decades and see lifetimes consistent with this, and we therefore expect the panels installed now to be highly reliable.

The solar industry has driven down costs remarkably over the past decade, and along with efficiencies of scale there has been an enormous amount of product innovation, particularly in cell technology, module production and new materials.

For 10 years, the Australian solar industry has relied upon PV modules being certified to IEC 61215 and IEC 61730 as a benchmark entry level. In that time, there have been updates for fire testing, a number of amendments and a revision to the standards. Despite this, there is a range of defects seen in the field for which these standards are not currently testing.

Wide range in quality

There is an expectation that if a panel meets the IEC standards, it will perform reliably for 25 years. However, the standards were never written for long-term reliability. They are written to address known problems identified in the field. The problem is that standards development is a very slow process, and a typical timeline from identification of a new mode of failure to a change in standards is likely to be a minimum of five years and is generally more.

In the fast-growing field of solar power, where 75% of installed PV capacity has operated for less than five years, relying on the current base standards is not sufficient. The solar industry is well aware that there is a wide range of quality in the solar panels on the market and primarily relies on brand reputation and the manufacturer datasheets as key indicators of quality.

Sandy Pulsford is a product testing and compliance specialist with the Clean Energy Council.

The good reputation and local support history of many manufacturers gives some guide, but it is important to realise that most have a large choice of components of varying quality which still meet the current standards. Some of these will last the distance, and some may not. A key factor in the quality of components used in a production run is whether the customer placing the order with the manufacturer specifies a quality product or simply requests the lowest price.

Australian industry has a reputation for the latter, creating an expectation among some manufacturers that selection of quality components is not considered important. Often the difference in cost is minimal, but if squeezed under extreme price pressure from the customer, they will use the cheapest. Until customers demand higher quality, and verify that they are getting it, we are at risk of future failures with solar installations.

The A list

A much greater awareness is required among developers, importers, distributors and retailers that they are the gatekeepers of solar module quality in Australia. This requires a deeper knowledge of what goes into their panels and which of the many variants of any one model number may have been tested to a higher standard.

The Clean Energy Council is well aware of the difficulties faced by purchasers in understanding what makes for a quality product. However, this information can be very hard to come by. Generally, only very large projects can afford to conduct a rigorous due diligence process. This involves engaging an external company to advise them, supervise the production process and verify the resulting product.

For that reason, the CEC list of approved PV modules now highlights modules that meet a range of higher standards. This Enhanced Listing gives purchasers guidance in choosing the most appropriate panels for their market segment or project. Manufacturers must provide a certificate to this standard and a company declaration that the modules supplied to the Australian market will be made exclusively with components which meet both the IEC 61215/61730 certification and the enhanced standard(s).

A series of new Enhanced Listings are now available, including JCU Cyclone Testing and MAST Backsheet Durability. Further details on all the Enhanced Listings can be found on the CEC’s website.

Datasheets often make claims of additional certifications, and the CEC does check these, or request removal of these claims at the time of product listing. The datasheet verified by the CEC is required to be used on the manufacturer and importer’s websites. However, in some cases this is subsequently changed or a different version is uploaded on a distributor’s or retailer’s website.

If a claim is made on a datasheet and there is no corresponding Enhanced Listing, it should be treated with caution and a written confirmation provided by the manufacturer before relying on this for any particular order. In some cases, the claim may be marked “optional” or “on request” at the request of the CEC.

Quality is everyone’s responsibility, and the reputation of the industry is dependent on achieving the lifetimes that have been promised.

Sandy Pulsford is a product testing and compliance specialist with the Clean Energy Council.