Testing solar modules is a proven route to ensuring the manufacturer delivers on their promise, writes Michelle McCann, whose company offers a PV trial regime.

If a module manufacturer even thinks that their product is being tested, 3% more power will be delivered on day one. This was one of the impetuses for starting PV Lab Australia, to be the testing lab that directly and indirectly creates 3% more solar energy.

Three percent of installed solar power across Australia is huge. Large enough even to drive my colleagues and I to start and maintain 100% of a company! For the domestic market alone in 2020, 3% was 78MW. If you also include larger farms, 3% is more than 140MW. (In dreamy moments, I imagine that PV Lab Australia is like a virtual solar farm, adding megawatts of power to the grid every year.)

Australia is different to other countries because our solar industry grew, in a sense, upside down. Early growth was driven by our residential market which, on a per head of population basis, grew to be a world leader. Our commercial and industrial market came later, initially growing from a very small base.

The panels that have entered our residential market are typically not the same panels that may have been used in a multi-hundred-megawatt solar farm. The strength in this history is in the quantity of PV that we have on the rooftops of Australia. The weakness is in the quality of the PV; we have created a market that does very little quality control. We have a distributed power station on our rooftops and we haven’t done any of the quality control that would be done as a matter of course in a centralised power station of even much smaller size.

Too late to start now?

So, quality control measures haven’t and continue not to be taken – but does that necessarily mean quality is bad? No, absolutely not. We have found and will continue to find good panels in the Australian market. But we do know that the quality of some panels is very poor indeed.

On the surface, this is not a problem. It is OK to have product of varying quality available on a market, provided that people can make an informed decision about what they want to buy.

The problem in the case of PV is that there is no way for different parts of the value chain to differentiate between good and terrible product. It is in response to this problem that PV Lab has decided to introduce PV Pass (after years of thought, market tests and a small grant project). It is our hope that PV Pass is a program that will contribute to a step change in the Australian market.

What’s the big idea

How results may be presented for a module that endures the PV Pass testing regime.

The vision is simple: it’s a single noticeboard that shows the relative performance over time, and today, of the biggest-selling brands in the market. A place where the learnings of real PV module quality in Australia can be collected and broadcast. It is a badge that sellers of quality product can use to demonstrate to their customers that they care and are checking on the quality of the product they buy.

PV Pass will help the end consumer to make a more informed decision. It will also help the seller of higher-quality product to justify higher prices, by pointing to independent verification of module quality.

Nationally, we hope that PV Pass will make inroads into delivering those many megawatts of additional power (78MW in 2020 and growing each year) in installed residential systems.  

Change in the photovoltaics industry is certainly in the air. The Clean Energy Regulator recently released its Integrity Review of the Rooftop Solar PV Sector, which was called for because of a combination of massive growth and consumer issues. The need for change is widely recognised and hopefully these steps will improve the industry across Australia and give us better panels in circulation.

The details

PV Pass will work with installers to sample and (non-destructively) test panels from their stock, before returning them to the installer for use. The testing will give an indication of three aspects of panel quality:

  1. Does the panel deliver the amount of power that it promises? Panel power output will be assessed using a sun simulator and an STC power test according to IEC 61215/60904.
  2. Can the panel be transported without sustaining damage? External damage will be assessed with a basic visual inspection. Internal damage will be assessed using electroluminescence (EL) testing. This is like taking an X-ray of a panel and looking for micro-cracks, which would not be visible to the naked eye.  
  3. Is the panel safe to install and use? Panel safety will be assessed using a wet leakage test. This test essentially looks for electrical pathways between the parts of the panel that should be live (the solar cells and the attached wires) and the parts that should not be live (such as the frame and the glass coversheet). It involves submerging the panel in a water bath and applying a very large voltage (typically 1,500 volts) across the panel. 

For example, an installer doing 10MW over the course of a year would send 125 panels in for testing (about 0.5% of their stock). The cost to them would be around 0.5c/Wp. For a 7kW system this is power station-grade quality assurance for only $35.

For $35, the end consumer will get certainty that their product does what the manufacturer says it does and that it is unlikely to have been damaged on route to their rooftop and is safe to use. Beyond these very concrete returns, the use of testing also discourages other shortcuts and increases the chances of getting a longer lasting, higher quality product.

We are already working with a small group of installers to beta test the program. With their feedback, we’ll be making some tweaks with the aim of rolling out the full program early in 2022.

Michelle McCann is a co-founder and director of PV Lab Australia.