Solar is looking pretty resilient, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Now it’s time for international standardization to accelerate and protect investment and performance.
Crunching data from almost 50,000 PV systems pumping out 1.7 gigawatts from 2009 to 2012 — the infamous year of Hurricane Sandy — NREL’s report Reliability and Geographic Trends of 50,000 Photovoltaic Systems in the USA found that 85 percent of them performed 10 percent better than expected. The briefer version? Not even extreme weather events from America’s fearsomely changing climates can make solar panels seem like a dumb investment.
“Worldwide, trillions of dollars of capital are available for investing in photovoltaic systems, but technological and performance risks, among other barriers, remain limiting factors to investment in the PV asset class,” NREL’s study explained — during a market noticeably decoupling from fossil fuels. “Bankable PV that inspires investors’ confidence,” it added (using a three-legged stool as a symbol), requires internationally “consistent manufacturing, durable design, and system verification,” as well trackable durability and reliability in the field. No matter the superstorm.
In that respect, solar is a top performer in the field and the portfolio. NREL’s study found 90 percent of “normal” solar installations unaffected by lightning strikes, hail and wind storms, and even globally warmed events like Hurricane Sandy, still managed to outperform expectation. Divided by regional climates, solar systems in the desert Southwest and hot and humid Southeast United States slightly degraded over time, but of course that’s what usual happens to anything, like inverters, that soak up sun all day in the hottest parts of the nation. Similarly, so-called snowpocalypses like Sandy, blamed for a slim margin of underperforming systems studied by the NREL, can chill solar power down for a spell. But barely, and since underperforming modules comprised about 0.1 percent of all data, maybe not really.
“Considerable uncertainty exists due to the nature of the data,” the NREL concluded. “However, the loss in production is more likely to be associated with subsequent grid outages than with PV system damage.”
What needs to come next for solar to grow even more powerful are international standards and agreements.
“With manufacturers feeling pressure to lower prices, it is essential that quality be maintained and assured,” explained research fellow Sarah Kurtz, co-author of NREL’s Updated Proposal for a Guide for Quality Management Systems for PV Manufacturing (PDF). “The[se] new guidelines help to ensure that quality is not compromised for lower priced modules and make it easier for PV customers to assess the expected quality.”
With about $100 billion annual investment in solar on the table, NREL worked with American and international solar manufacturers to arrive at a global quality standard for PV module production for science and profit. The task force’s supplemental requirements for technical specification of testing, manufacturing and mounting — with respect to regional climate (change) — mandate that warranties for solar panels conform to their expected lifetimes, and that manufacturers are able to trace their products through their entire supply chains. The design product and process must consider potential failure modes, while product certification and reliability testing from China’s International Electrotechnical Commission is also a must.
Getting technical about it, these international standards are doubtlessly deemed important by Kurtz’s co-authors, some of whom hail from industry heavyweights like SunPower, Trina and First Solar. But more broadly speaking, streamlining global solar’s technical specifications will nevertheless greatly accelerate what is already a scorching market for Earth’s most resilient form of renewable energy. The more players we get to agree on the rules of the game, the greater the victories over 20th century energy system that is way past due for an upgrade.