Solar Panels: Is There a Quality Problem?

Solar energy seems like the perfect solution: cheap and boundless.  You get all the energy you need for free - barring the initial investment for the installation -  and added bonus, it's all done at no damage to the environment. 

But there's a catch: quality could be a problem. 

Worrying news of failure of solar panels are seeping out of the United States, I say "seeping out" because the news are still few and far between: see the articles below that I was able to pick off the Internet. A fire was reported at a highschool in St Louis (Mo) last month, and when this happens there is always someone else ready to advise how this could have been avoided.

The problem is that such events are happening more often as more solar panels are installed. How safe and how effective are solar panels?

No one knows.The furor around solar panels started three days ago in reaction to a New York Times investigation published on May 28 (to read it, click here). The NYT article highlighted a particularly grievous event in Los Angeles where a large rooftop installation guaranteed to last 25 years failed after only two years due to a defective outer coating while other defects caused a fire that took the panels off line for two years.

Why this "rash of defective panels"? It appears to have been caused by competitive pressure - especially from the low-cost Chinese solar panels - as American producers sought to cut costs by resorting to cheaper materials, compromising the longevity of their products.  

That's free competition for you! In an unregulated market, the only way producers can defend themselves is by resorting to cost-cutting - at the expense of quality of course.

As the NYT reporter Todd Woody writes, "Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers and insurers are reporting similar problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption."

No one is sure how widespread the problem really is, there are no reliable industry-wide figures about defective solar panels. And as pointed out in the NYT, "when defects are discovered, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret, making accountability in the industry all the more difficult."

The solution? An overseeing independent institution to hold solar panel manufacturers accountable. Such an institution would deliver certificates guaranteeing the quality of the products. This is standard in many industries (especially food industries), why not solar panels?

Manufacturers might initially object and see that as curtailment of their freedom but in fact it would help them, weeding out the dishonest producers. Furthermore, certificates could provide a classification, giving a triple A to the highest quality and a C to the lowest, so that you would know as a consumer what you are getting.

Both the European Union and the United States have the appropriate institutions that could do this. What's required is a Food and Drug Administration approach to industry, in particular to regulate the quality of new technologies.

What is your opinion, any advice?
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