New York Times article: Solar panel quality concerns

Regarding the New York Times article of May 29, 2013 by Todd Woody entitled Solar Industry Anxious Over Defective Panels, our response at Third Sun Solar was a mix of frustration and ‘we told you so.’ Since 2000 we’ve been cautioning our customers and prospects—individually and in public forums—that solar is a young industry with newcomers jumping in every week. Newcomers as in new installers, new manufacturers, and new customers. We have pushed for standards and best practices. And we’ve cautioned our customers against seeking out lowest-price solutions—because, as in that age-old wisdom, you get what you pay for. In the case of PV solar, you are putting an electrical generating plant on your roof or grounds—one that should produce expected levels of clean energy for 30 years. That is not the place to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

We have advocated for strong solar industry standards and adherence to best practices. We’ve seen ourselves under-bid and undercut by impossibly low prices, and wondered: how can so-and-so build a quality solar installation that cheaply? Well, again and again we’ve found, they can’t. At least, not if the word quality means anything.

Here is a rough outline of what we have been advocating for the emerging solar energy industry since our founding in 2000. In light of The New York Times article on solar panel quality, we renew our call for the solar industry to grow up and adopt strict standards and best practices:

  • We have always had a policy against beta testing on our customer’s dime. Case in point, we steadfastly avoided using Solyndra panels even when they were “the next new thing” and many of our customers were asking for them. We said no—they are unproven, and the company making them is too new and likewise unproven. The failure of Solyndra gave solar opponents some great talking points and the industry a black eye.
  • Whether it be micro-inverters, the latest shade tolerant inverter, thin film laminates, or locally manufactured racking, whenever any new product comes out we have advised our clients to try to see beyond the marketing claims and search out truly independent, objective test results. Unfortunately, in this rapidly growing industry these are often hard to come by.
  • We have long advocated for strong industry standards and institutionalized best practices.
  • We have encouraged our employees to become NABCEP certified. NABCEP certification involves an incredibly rigorous regimen of training and testing. NABCEP certificates are the “gold standard” of expertise in the solar industry.
  • Our founder, Geoff Greenfield, was a member of the very first NABCEP graduating class. Geoff now sits on the NABCEP board of directors.
  • We have always been honest with our customers in pointing out the fact that no industry standards yet exist for making energy performance projections. We deliver very conservative projections for the systems we design and install.
  • We have always been honest with our customers in pointing out that no industry standards exist for assessing, quantifying and publishing the long-term viability of major components. A 25-year warranty requires 25 years to be proven out. That said, we conduct our own research and carefully select major components that we feel will serve our customers best, and thereby serve our company best in the long run. We studiously avoid low-cost “solutions” because, in our view, they guarantee downstream problems.
  • We employ trained, experienced installers and enforce a high degree of oversight.
  • We partner closely with other industry veterans to ensure we learn from their mistakes.
  • We sought out and achieved certification as a SunPower dealer. SunPower manufactures the most high-efficiency solar modules in the world and their products consistently rank among the best for quality and durability. What’s more, SunPower inspects our installations after completion to ensure we consistently meet their standards for quality design and construction.
  • We have repeatedly advised our customers not to use lowest-cost equipment. When initial price is the sole deciding factor in who builds a project, we often lose. Those are projects we do not want to build.
  • And we provide a ten-year warranty on our installations to cover the possibility that, after all of our care and due diligence, we too could make a mistake.

We understand the risks inherent in any rapidly-growing industry. Customers need to minimize risk in moving toward clean energy, and the best way to do that is to find a trusted design/install firm with a long, positive track record of successful installations. Making purchase decisions on a 30-year product based on lowest initial cost is not necessarily the best way to go. The Times article illustrates just how important such considerations can be for a young, emerging industry.

Third Sun Solar has not used components from a single one of the companies implicated in the article—and, we agree fully with the final words of the piece: “It’s time to start naming names.”

Does solar work in a blackout?

If you’re thinking about installing a solar system to have power in a blackout, here are some facts to consider. There are many advantages to installing a grid-connected solar energy system. But, having full power to your home or business during a blackout is not one of them. You will need to take special steps for solar to work for you in a blackout.

In the event of a power outage, basic habits like charging a cell phone become essential. Most homeowners have no source of backup power when the grid goes down. Even homes with solar may lose power in the event of a grid outage if their system does not include some form of energy storage.

 

Are you in Ohio (or nearby) & ready to learn more about solar & backup battery power? If so, reach out today. 

 

Does solar work in a power outage?

There are two reasons that ordinary grid-tied solar will not work during a grid failure. The first is a technical reason and the second is a safety and regulatory issue.

First and foremost is the technical reason. The electronics that control a solar system constantly adjust voltage and current to keep the panels operating efficiently as the sunlight changes. To do this, the system produces quantities of power that aren’t  dependent on how much your house is actually using in a given moment. In a grid-connected system, any excess power is put back onto the grid for others to use, and your utility credits you on your bill for that power.

Solar power output varies directly with sunlight levels. So, even if you disregard the need for efficiency, connecting this variable resource directly to your home’s electrical system would cause your lights to blink, damage your refrigerator, and wreak havoc on your computers and television.

The second reason that solar shuts down during a blackout is safety.

During a power outage, the power utility sends out repair crews to find and fix the points of failure. Linemen and women will be jeopardized if there is a local power generator (like a solar array) leaking power onto the grid lines. Therefore, utility rules mandate that in the event of a power outage, solar arrays must automatically shut down. Solar systems have detectors that sense whether power is coming across the grid, and whenever grid power is down, they automatically shut down too, to protect utility workers.

Battery Backup

There are arguments for and against battery storage for PV solar systems. The biggest “for” argument is that battery backup will power your home or business during a blackout. The biggest “against” of battery storage is the cost, which can double the cost of your clean energy system. Batteries also compromise the “clean energy” aspect of solar—they are toxic and very costly to discard when no longer useful. Batteries have a relatively short life, compared to other solar system components; they are also very heavy and bulky, and require a lot of maintenance to perform at their best.

You are a good candidate for a backup battery system if you: 

  • Want to know that you will have seamless energy when the grid is down  
  • Experience frequent power outages 
  • Experience extreme weather conditions 
  • Have critical appliances at your home 

Tesla Powerwall: Home Battery Storage  

Powerwall is a home battery system that turns your home’s solar panels into an all-day resource. Daily it increases your self-consumption of solar. In the event of an outage, it offers reliable home backup power. With Powerwall, more of your home’s electricity use will come from solar, which enhances solar functionality, reduces energy costs and provides peace of mind to homeowners.  

Powerwall allows you to store 14 kWh of energy and use that energy to run your home with solar during the night and back up your home in the event of a power outage. 

The technology withing Powerwall is able to detect a grid outage, disconnect from the grid and bring power back to your home in a fraction of a second. That is over 100x faster than typical standby generators, and fast enough to keep your appliances running without interruption. You will not have to reset your clocks or your alarm. Powerwall can provide backup to your entire home. However, depending on the type of appliances at your home, we may recommend an essential load backup instead of whole home backup. Read more about Tesla here. 

Right Sizing Your Backup System:

Whole Home Backup 

If you’re interested in whole home backup, our Solar Designers can analyze your homes electric use patterns and the recommended number of Powerwall’s needed to keep all loads running. In some cases, an upgrade to your electrical panel may be needed and we will advise you if this is the case. You can add more Powerwall’s to keep your house operational longer during an outage. 

Essential Load Backup  

If your electrical situation doesn’t require whole home backup, we can backup select essential loads. Since lights and outlets require less energy, a single Powerwall will typically be enough.  

New inverters offer some solar power in a blackout

We have been using SMA inverters for a long time—they are great products with high reliability.

Now, new technology developed for SMA’s Sunny Boy 3000TL-US/4000TL-US/5000TL-US models offers a partial solution to the grid power failure problem. These new inverters feature a secure power supply (SPS) that can connect to an external socket outlet. They provide up to 1,500W of daytime power when the sun is shining and the array is generating sufficient power in the event of a grid outage. This gives customers confidence that  a small supply of electricity will be available, even when the grid is out and other solar PV systems are down. The bottom line is, with new technology, grid-connected solar can deliver a limited amount of electricity to your home or business during a power outage. This is a new development.

These new inverters address both of the technical and safety issues by creating a small, independent circuit entirely disconnected from the grid. The inverter controls the solar panel electrical output as an alternative to sending out variable power levels.

SMA inverters represent a compromise between solar owner’s desires for backup power and reluctance to make the upfront investment in a battery backup solution.

Is solar worth the money?

The ability to generate clean solar power during a blackout is an advantage of going solar.

  • In the long run, solar power is economical. Solar panels and installation involve high initial expenses, but this cost is soon offset by savings on energy bills.
  • Solar can increase the value of your home.
  • With a grid connection and net-metering rules, your solar power system shares clean energy with the grid.
  • Federal tax credits can offset 30% of your investment.
  • Solar energy systems are safe, reliable, and durable—the panels are warranted for 25 years.

Your fuel is free once your initial investment in solar is paid off. With fossil fuel costs & utility rates predicted to rise, solar is good way to lock in long-term savings now.

 

 

Going Off Grid

off grid house

Into the wild, with lights and a fridge

I just spoke with an ideal candidate for off-grid solar. Her weekend cabin is ½-mile down a dirt road in a remote rural area. It’s never had electrical service. The driveway cuts across a neighbor’s property and she has an easement for coming and going but not for trenching or running wire. And she uses the off-grid house only occasionally, on weekends, mostly during the summer.

Bingo. With a small off-grid solar array and battery storage, she can be more comfortable in the cabin.

But most people who inquire with us about getting off the grid do not share these characteristics. They want to do it for other reasons: they don’t like their utility; hate paying power bills; want to be independent; or want to be self-sufficient in the event of catastrophe.

According to Nicolas Morgan of Morgan Solar, “I hear many people talking about ‘getting off grid.’ It really sounds better than it is.”

“Basically, it makes much more sense for us all to contribute to the grid. [If we] increase our local home production as much as we can, while decreasing our consumption, we’re giving back more than we’re taking.” [Note—Net Excess Generation rules do apply here in the States, and over-production can cost you dearly. But agreed—energy efficiency combined with renewable generation allows us to individually balance-up grid energy with clean energy.] “In this model,” he says, “a couple of things happen. First, it provides more of a financial incentive for upgrades to the grid that would benefit everyone; and second, it contributes to a more stable, productive and low-cost power grid for everyone.”

One social benefit of solar is clean power going onto the grid just when it needs it most—at those peak-demand summertime afternoon and early evenings. “Staying connected and giving back makes more sense than disconnecting,” says Nick. We agree.

 

Choosing Solar Panels

There are three important characteristics to look for in solar panels—

  • panel efficiency
  • panel warranty
  • weather resistance

Panel efficiency means how well a panel performs over time. Solar panels lose some ability to generate electricity as time passes—the question is, how much do they lose & how fast.

High-quality panel manufacturers offer a Power Production Warranty that guarantees no more than X% efficiency loss over X years. Inferior panels tend to have a greater immediate drop-off in efficiency and a sharper production decline over the life of the system (20-30 years).

A good panel warranty should guarantee against manufacturing defects and assure efficient performance over the duration of the warranty. Superior panels offer typical 25-year warranties.

Weather resistance is a solar panel’s ability to withstand wear and tear from the elements. People often ask about hail damage, and our standard answer is, hail big enough to break car windshields will probably break a solar panel. But that’s pretty rare, and in any event, would be covered by your homeowner’s insurance. In coastal areas, salt is a big concern. Well-built panels are crafted from high-grade aluminum (6000 series marine grade, for example) and include a salt mist certification for use near the coast.

In short, you’re well advised to go with solar panels that guarantee higher efficiency over a longer warranty period.

American solar

Our completed project at Assurant in Springfield, Ohio


But here’s the best advice
: with the growth of the solar industry, most panels are now commodity items (except the high-efficiency panels from companies like SunPower). It is far better to spend your time choosing a good solar installer, who will recommend the best panels, than spending time weighing fine specification differences between panels. An experienced installer will know what to recommend—and will protect you (and his company’s reputation) by making good, safe recommendations and offering a strong workmanship warranty.

Is Solar a Good Investment?

Solar for your home is a classic long-term investment strategy. It costs money up front, then pays long-term dividends. Those dividends include:

  • daily clean energy for your home
  • monthly savings on your electric bill
  • yearly income from selling your Solar Renewable Energy Credits
  • decades of reliable, home-made clean energy
  • a lifetime of greater equity and value in your home
  • for our country, better energy security and independence
  • for our planet, less CO2 released into the atmosphere

Looking long-term, solar electric is better than most investments—especially now, with low interest rates available from banks and uncertain returns available from other investments. Many now agree: Solar is looking smarter every day.

SolarHomesSellFaster

One in 450

What is it about magic numbers? Seems like every once in a while, a number keeps popping up. Today’s number is 450, and it relates to the state of PV solar today compared to some notable 20th-century growth technologies:

In 1916, the U.S. car ownership rate was 1 in 450 (one out of  every 450 households).

In 1949, the U.S. television ownership rate was also 1 in 450.

Today – the U.S. PV solar ownership rate is, you guessed it, 1 in 450. One out of every 450 U.S. homes now has PV solar on the roof or in the yard.

(By contrast, the PV solar ownership rate in Germany is 1 in 33.)