The photovoltaic industry is in a perverse situation. To make power generation from solar competitive, prices of solar panels had to come down. Tens of billions in subsidies were plowed into the industry. Technological advances came along. And the price per watt crashed exponentially, from $76 in 1977 to about $7 in 1989. Then it leveled off. By 2000 it began to drop again, hit $4 in 2005, $2 in 2010, and a forecast $0.74 per watt in 2013 (graph).
But it wreaked havoc. Business models collapsed. Funding dried up. PV companies bled red ink. In the US, a slew of them, including Solyndra, went bankrupt. Others shut down or changed course. Tens of billions in taxpayer subsidies and investor capital spiraled down the drain.
In Germany, solar power was a political priority. They don’t have much sun, but they have more sun than oil, the logic went. Now even Bosch Solar Energy AG is fleeing the business after burning through $3.1 billion. Same story in France, in Spain. Bloodletting everywhere. They all blamed the low prices of Chinese solar panels. Complaints that led to anti-dumping proceedings in the US and aggravated the trade war between the EU and China [my take: Germany Fires Salvo In Sino-European Trade War ... At Brussels].
But solar power generators, from utilities with large-scale installations to farmers with solar panels on their barns, were ecstatic. They enjoyed subsidies, nearly free financing, and the hope that the system would more than pay for itself over the course of its 25-year life span. It would be a good deal.
But it might not be. The price war that Chinese manufacturers waged was a suicide mission. Now even they’re going bankrupt, including their erstwhile number one, Wuxi Suntech, when the banks pulled the ripcord in March. Existentially threatened, they cut costs ... and corners.
Related article: Is the Solar Energy Bubble Finally Bursting?
Defective solar panels can be costly. The New York Times described what happened to the PV installation on a warehouse roof in Southern California whose promise of a 25-year life span disintegrated along with the protective coatings on the panels after only two years, and part of it went up in smoke when defects caused two fires.
“Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers, and insurers are reporting similar problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis,” the Times reported. But instead of tracking defects industry-wide, manufacturers hide behind confidentiality agreements that treat their name as a secret. So no one knows the extent of the crisis. And it’s just the beginning: since nearly half of the 7.2 gigawatts of capacity in the US were installed in 2012 in a burst of incentive-fueled activity, most of the problems have not yet come to light. But some have:
Executives at companies that inspect Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers said that over the last 18 months they have found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials. Other brand-name manufacturers, they said, have shut down production lines and subcontracted the assembly of modules to smaller makers.
STS Certified, a French testing service, evaluated 215,000 PV modules at its Shanghai laboratory and found that defects had jumped from 7.8% in 2011 to 13% in 2012. An entire batch from one manufacturer was defective, but STS refused to identify the culprit – a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange – due to the confidentiality agreements.
German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol found that 80% of the installations in Europe it had examined were underperforming. SolarBuyer, based in Massachusetts, audited 50 Chinese plants over 18 months; defect rates ranged from 5.5% to a dizzying 22%. During repeat audits, it found that plants were constantly substituting cheaper materials. Ian Gregory, SolarBuyer’s senior marketing director, warned: “If the materials aren’t good or haven’t been thoroughly tested, they won’t stick together, and the solar module will eventually fall apart in the field.”
Even Chinese insiders admit it: “There are a lot of shortcuts being taken, and unfortunately it’s by some of the more reputable companies, and there’s also been lot of new companies starting up in recent years without the same standards we’ve had at Suntech,” lamented Chief Technology Officer Stuart Wenham – the same Suntech that was pushed into bankruptcy in March.
There are still some lucky solar developers and installers who claim that they haven’t run into quality problems yet on systems installed in 2012. But they’re brand-new, with 24 more years to go. And some of the defective panels weren’t made in China; all manufacturers are under pressure to cut corners in order to survive. First Solar, a US company, has reserved $271 million to account for the expense of replacing defective modules sold in 2008 and 2009. No word yet of those sold during the binge of 2012.
The costs of these defects will eat further into the industry that is struggling to become financially viable. Yet, in a cruel twist, the price of solar panels must continue to drop for solar power to be competitive without subsidies. Taxpayers, stung by austerity in Europe and by the sequester in the US, are already less than enthusiastic about propping up the industry forever. At some point, it must be able to stand on its own, at still lower prices that magically allow manufacturers, and not only power generators, to thrive – an illusion, for now. But waves of “cheap” solar panels that suddenly become very expensive after they’re installed will cause more bloodletting and push the propitious date further into the future.
China pops up everywhere. Aircraft maintenance was once a highly paid blue-collar job that required education, training, and manual skills. A perfect American middle-class job with healthcare, retirement, and vacation benefits; and free flights! Working for icons like Delta, American Airlines, Continental, TWA, or Pan Am! Icons indeed.
By. Wolf Richter