It’s all about the PV quality


"We are on the tip of the iceberg and many positive things are yet to come," stated Solarpraxis founder Karl-Heinz Remmers in his opening speech.

The company hosted its workshop yesterday in Berlin, Germany to address the burning quality questions for which the answers can help propel the industry to a new level of competitiveness with conventional fuels.

Remmers kicked off the event by asking the industry representatives why quality in the photovoltaic industry has yet to reach its epitome.

He stressed that more has to be undertaken to shape a solid certification process for solar products and to guarantee their quality. Remmers indicated problems like initial degradation and defects in modules, and how the industry is still relatively young and thus needs to work on finding the right solutions. "How can it be alright when a manufacturer says that it is normal to have a seven percent initial degradation?" he asks.

Modules are not the only component to think about when it comes to quality: the entire system has to work efficiently in a power plant, in order for the industry to be able to sell its products competitively, as Enerpac’s Stefan Müller highlighted.

Müller stressed that the pre-planning stage is where the most opportunities exist to improve the plant as a whole. "It starts with product selection. Every financier/bank has its list of expert reviews," he stated.

Bank wish-list

Banks, of course, need the assurance that the project will be successful and for that the components have to of high quality. "Right from the start, the supplier has to be involved. Communication with banks and investors is also important because of the information they have as people who are putting their money into the project," Müller added.

From the banks’ side, the session ‘A bank’s wish list-needs and problems of banking perspective' shed some light on what is expected before the capital is allowed to flow.

Deutsche Kreditbank’s (DKB) Dirk Kühnel explained that photovoltaics is second only to wind in terms of the bank’s investment portfolio at 39 percent. "I expect this to increase by the end of the year," Kühnel added.

There are very fixed standards that the bank follows when it comes to financing a photovoltaic project. For example, modules have to be supplied by European, American or Japanese suppliers, or inverters have to come from Europe with the IEC certification from VDE and/or TÜV (according to 2010’s standards). "Every bank has it own standards and after the project is developed, checks are made as well by independent institutes."

Nevertheless, Kühlen added, despite the compliance to the minimum standards, there is a deviation of ten percent of the bank’s forecast. He said this with regard to the experience gathered from the financing of more than 860 photovoltaic projects thus far.

Stricter rules not necessary

TÜV Rheinland’s Willi Vaaßen asserted, "We want to make progress in the industry." He displayed a series of photographs where poor module quality was shown and posed the question how these modules could have been shipped out in the first place. He added that this scenario also applies to components that are at times tested and certified by different institutes and then put together in a manner that is usually not approved. "Are the qualities for photovoltaic tough enough? Should they be made stricter?" he asked the audience.

Vaaßen thinks that the industry has, nevertheless, come a long way from the beginning of 2005, where almost half of the crystalline and thin film modules delivered were faulty. "Now we know more about the technology and the faults are less." He stressed how important tests are in order to make photovoltaic products bankable, adding that extra tests like Solarpraxis’ PV+Test do make sense.

He also requested more support from the industry in terms of reporting faults during operation. "As a certifier, TÜV needs to know when a product fails to prevent it from happening again. It makes sense to send a module every now and then to the labs for testing," he concluded.

The discussion stirred some response from the audience. Specifically, the question of if some tests, like the PID (potential induced degradation) test were transparent enough, was posed. "From the company’s point of view, if institutes like TÜV and VDE have different testing methods for issues like PID, then the company has the right to know. A quasi-standard is needed, not a further split in the industry," stated one participant. Vaaßen replied that they are still trying to figure out the best way possible to carry out certain tests like PID.

This brought back the point that Remmers mentioned at the beginning that there are still other organizations which label themselves as "testers" and provide tests that do not help bring the industry any further. He warned the industry to be wary of such tests and seals, which do not necessarily mean that a certain component is of high quality. Therefore, seals from established institutes and partners are the vital link to ensuring quality.

Installation errors

Also a much-debated theme was that of planning and execution errors. Modules and components might be delivered pristine, but if the construction is faulty, the system can still fall apart.

Robert von Bennigsen of BDJ, an insurance company, pointed out in his presentation on risk mitigation that a hefty 42 percent of the time that the photovoltaic power plant gets damaged or underperforms, construction is at fault. He mentions this as the risk phase one, where planning is not done well and thereafter execution.

Von Bennigsen talked about how sub-contractors have to be selected carefully and supervised in the development of the plant, and that insurers have to be able to assess it as well. Only then can problems after installation, like mounted modules falling apart, can be prevented.

Learning from experience

Conergy’s quality director Helmut Hoebbel stated that there is a gap in quality compared to perhaps the automotive or semi-conductor industry – a fact that was also highlighted by Remmers at the beginning.

Hoebbel feels that other branches have the luxury of experience, something the solar industry can learn and use. "Quality comes from conquering the production process as well," Hoebbel stated.

At the end of the session, many loose ends were tied up nicely, although some new and old questions hung in the air. Nevertheless, what was important was the fact it was out in the open. Quality is an issue that will always be a central discussion point, be it how to measure or improve it.

What is important to note is the fact that the solar industry has a very high responsibility to ensure that its products and their work as an entire system has to be as efficient as possible to be able to reach its full potential. Enerpac’s Stefan Müller summed it up rather aptly: "Quality is when the customer comes back and not the product."

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