Inside The Solar Panel Boot Camp

UL11 Inside The Solar Panel Boot Camp

 Inside a large, non-discrete building in Silicon Valley is a boot camp for solar panels.

They must endure high heat, freezing temperatures and severepounding. And they have to survive without becoming some kind of firehazards in order to get approval from Underwriters Laboratories, the product safety and performance-testing firm based in Northbrook, Ill.

Getting certifications from organizations such as UL is crucial forsolar energy equipment makers, who will find it difficult to market andsell their products without recognition from an independent lab thattheir goods meet performance and safety standards.

Business has been booming in recent years for the privately held UL,the company said. UL opened a 20,000-square-foot solar testing lab inSan Jose, Calif., in July 2008, and expanded it earlier this year to32,000-square-foot.

The expansion arrived two years earlier than planned, and it boostedthe testing capacity, measured by the number of projects per year, by40 percent, said Yassie Dunn, a spokeswoman for the UL. Overall, thecompany has served over 100 solar panel makers worldwide.

"We are getting a lot of demand for testing here, and we have to beproactive and provide more space," said Christian Paxton, who managesthe UL lab in San Jose and provided a tour of the space.

At the Solar Power International conference in Anaheim later thismonth, UL plans to announce a new service that would streamline thecertification process and avoid redundant testing of solar panels thatare "identical in construction, materials and performance," Dunn said.

The new service would allow sellers of a complete set of factoryequipment to seek certification for their panel designs. Thatcertification would then speed up the certification process for thoseequipment makers’ clients when they look for UL’s approval beforelaunching their products. UL is currently providing the service as apilot project, Dunn said. 

UL and its competitors have moved fast to expand their testingfacilities worldwide to accommodate the growing demand for renewableenergy in Europe, the United States and Asia.

UL not expanded its lab in San Jose, it also opened one in China in 2009. The company now plans to open a lab in Germany in the first quarter of 2010 and one in Japan later next year.

Competition for business also has intensified among independent labs.

Germany-based Tüv Rheinland,which claims to be the world’s largest solar technology testingorganization, opened a lab in Tempe, Ariz., last year as a jointventure with Arizona State University.

In June this year, Tüv Rheinland opened a new solar testing site in Cologne, Germany. The company also has solar testing centers in China and Japan.

UL offers testing for two types of certifications: its own standardthat deals with safety; and standard set by the InternationalElectrotechnical Commission (IEC) that deals with performance.

The process can take anywhere from three months to two years,depending on the quality of the products and the turnaround time formanufacturers to fix problems and submit new samples, Paxton said.

A delay in getting certification could mean a delay in shippingproducts to waiting customers and generating revenues. While labs suchas UL and Tüv Rheinland expand testing capacities and come up with newservices to speed along the certification process, they also have to bemake sure expediency doesn’t trump the quality of their tests.

To minimize technical glitches during testing, companies could hireUL to work with them in the early stages of product engineering, Paxtonsaid.

Tüv Rheinland also offers what it calls "master certificates" tofactory equipment makers. The idea is the same: if the panels producedfrom the tool makers’ lines pass performance and/or safety tests, thentheir customers’ solar panels could undergo a streamlined process to becertified.

Oerlikon Solar, maker of amorphous-silicon thin film equipment in Switzerland, touted its master certificate in May this year.

Manufacturers typically submit 10 to 15 panels for each testing atUL. UL technicians put the panels throughout various tests to see howwell they might perform after a prolonged exposure to weather elementsand even extreme temperatures.

These tests also gauge the sturdiness of the insulating materialsand the performance of the wiring: how quickly do they stop working orwhether they leak too much current to pose fire and health hazards.

Inside one room, the panels are propped up to face lamps that shinelight with intensity that is equivalent to the sun. The exposure woulddetermine the amount of power they can generate consistently, andwhether the rate of output closely matches the manufacturers’ claims.

At another station, water drizzle on solar panels to simulate rain.Rain could pool inside panels, damaging wires and leading to leakycurrent. UL also serves up little ice balls with 1 inch in diameter tosimulate hail.

A technician also ties a 30-pound weight to the junction box at the back of each panel to test the box’s durability.

"That’s one of the tests we see a lot of failures simply becausemanufacturers may not be putting enough adhesive on, so overtime thatcan come apart," Paxton said.

The panels are targets of an 100-pound bag at each panel a few timesto look for weak spots on the glass surface and see whether it remainsintact despite cracks or falls apart and makes the surface a danger forhumans to touch.

Then there are 22 giant chambers where the panels stay for hours to30 days and endure extreme temperatures and humidity, from 85-degreeCelsius at 85 percent humidity to minus 40-degree Celsius. UL also hasoutdoor testing sites.

We will post a video of the lab tour soon.

UL22 Inside The Solar Panel Boot Camp