The rise of solar panels has been hailed as an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional forms of electricity. Although their introduction was seen by some as little more than a quirk of the green movement, improvements in technology and lowered costs brought about by competition from China, where production is heavily subsidized by the government, has led to more and more businesses installing solar panels to offset running costs. To their supporters, solar panels are effective, safe, and form the basis for responsible energy management. Recently, however, questions have been raised about the overall quality of the industry’s products and reports of defective panels are becoming more widespread.
Buildings fitted with too many solar panels may be at risk of fire .
There are currently an estimated 7700 megawatts (7.7 gigawatts) of solar energy in the United States, with more than 5.2 gigawatts expected to be added by the end of 2013. The industry is still very much in its infancy; more than 40% of the current U.S. solar energy market was launched after 2011. On top of this, confidentiality agreements ensure that when panel failures do occur, the information is rarely widely shared. All of this has created a worrying lack of information about the quality of thousands of solar panels.
One thing that has become apparent, though, is that Chinese-produced panels are often not what they seem.
China currently produces the majority of the world’s solar panels and companies are under pressure to decrease production costs. Observers and those who have inspected manufacturing plants have voiced increasing concern that corners are being cut and subpar materials are being used in an effort to save money. STS Certified, a testing service that has examined the photovoltaic modules of Chinese-produced solar panels more than once, has reported an increasing defect rate, which may be as high as 13% in 2012. A U.S-based testing service, meanwhile, found as many as 22% of panels and units from Chinese factories were defective. Worldwide, similar figures are being reported: Spanish authorities reported a 34.5% defect rate on solar panels employed by power plants in 2010, while a study of more than 30,000 locations across Europe found a worrying 80% of panels were underperforming.
Defective solar panels are not a uniquely Chinese problem, however. American-made panels have also been reported as defective. Panels installed in Los Angeles, which carry a life expectancy of 25 years, have reportedly been failing after only two and causing fires. The panels in this case were produced in the United States.
With figures suggesting that solar panel defects are widespread, lawsuits against manufacturers and subsidiary companies could be on the horizon. Insurance companies are also likely to be watching the situation, keen to determine how big an impact solar panels will have on businesses.
There’s also a separate and entirely unforeseen problem: buildings fitted with too many solar panels may be at risk of fire not because of the panels themselves, but because firefighters simply can’t access the buildings.
The placement of rows of solar panels on large warehouse roofs and other buildings has been identified as a danger to firefighters, affecting their ability to create roof holes to reduce smoke and burning air, acting as trip hazards, and – most of all – presenting electrical shock hazards as the panels cannot be switched off. Any light – even that from the firefighters’ flashlights – can activate the panels and therefore produce electricity. Although there have been no confirmed cases of injury, several fire engineers and fire chiefs have commented that buildings fitted with panels may be far more at risk, as crews may elect not to treats these fires in the same way as those occurring in buildings without panels. It has been suggested that crews may choose to use defensive firefighting – whereby the focus is on protecting nearby buildings rather than saving the original blaze site – when called to fires in buildings using alternative energy. The burden now lies with the solar industry to address any potential problems related to this issue.
While solar panels provide benefits for companies and the environment, manufacturers must ensure the units are produced in a consistent and effective manner to render the use of panels worthwhile. Regardless of the country of origin, panel production as it stands seems to be subject to fluctuations in quality. If this persists, and consumers find their money has been spent on defective products, class action lawsuits could soon follow, hoping to hold to account those who have produced and sold defective units.