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A Solar Panel Buying Guide Coming Your Way

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Hundreds of solar panel manufacturers are peddling their offerings today – how can project developers and consumers make good buying decisions? A new Consumer Reports-style program is underway, and will be available next year to help provide independent product reviews, and test results of solar panels.

The program is run by Solarpraxis, a Berlin company that offers engineering services, conferences and trade publications. The idea came about because Germany, thanks to its generous subsidies, has lured manufacturers and project developers like bees to honey. Many of the solar panels come from Chinese manufacturers who are able to offer cheaper panels – and sometimes poorer quality – prompting German lawmakers and manufacturers to lobby for policies that provide some sort of quality control.

Manufacturers have to secure certifications that show their solar panels are built to withstand fire and other hazards and can produce the guaranteed amount of power for 20-25 years. But manufacturers can also likely game the process by supplying only their best modules or even someone else’s modules (and replace the original labels with their own). This fake-out has actually been done, Christian Steinberg, a senior consultant at Solarpraxis, told me in an interview.

The solar panel review program by Solarpraxis, called PV Test, won’t take panels directly from manufacturers. Instead, Solarpraxis buys the panels from a distributor and sends them to TUV Rheinland for testing. TUV Rheinland is one of the main certification organizations, but for the Solarpraxis’s program it would run customized tests. (Disclosure: I contribute to PV Magazine, which is owned by Solarpraxis).

“A lot of manufacturers have trouble getting financing. We can help to make the market transparent by showing which modules are reliable and which ones (investors) can trust,” Steinberg said during a Solarpraxis’s conference in Las Vegas Wednesday.

The first set of tests, examining crystalline silicon panels from eight manufacturers, have already been done.  The results will be published in Solarpraxis’ publications, and some details will be available to other media, Steinberg said. Solarpraxis is looking at also testing thin film solar panels, which refer to panels made with little or no silicon but with materials such as cadmium-telluride and copper-indium-gallium-selenide.

The results will provide a more unbiased opinion on module quality, something that project developers and their bankers wrestle with. The tests also could provide good references for consumers, particularly when solar can be an expensive investment.

The product review program would be akin to Consumer Reports, though some of the program’s rules are quite different. For one thing, solar panel manufacturers would pay for the panel purchases and tests, where as Consumer Reports, a nonprofit, is able to spend its own money to buy products and test them. Some manufacturers have balked at participating because they don’t like the rule that prohibits them from supplying the solar panels directly for testing, Steinberg said.

Consumer Reports says their ratings and reports are for their paid subscribers, not for marketing by manufacturers. Results from PV Test, on the other hand, could be used by manufacturers in advertising. Manufacturers also can opt not to have the test results published if their panels show poor results. Steinberg said the idea of publishing good and bad results was a subject of a huge debate among manufacturers were interested in participating, but the vote was to publicize only those who could make the grade.

It will be interesting to see the PV Test results and whether the data become useful guides. But the idea is a good one in an emerging market that is only getting crowded with brands and players.

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Photo courtesy of Jeremy Levine Design