PI Berlin findings say little about module quality in Europe

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From pv magazine Germany.

In January, the Photovoltaics Institute Berlin (PI Berlin) published a white paper suggesting the quality of production among PV manufacturers has improved in recent years. The study said quality was higher for large-scale manufacturers, and particularly high in Asia, with the performance of factories in China, Korea and Southeast Asia measuring higher, on average, than that seen in U.S. or European plants.

That raised hackles among U.S. and European manufacturers who have questioned whether PI Berlin audited enough of their factories to make such a generalization. After all, the institute’s director of marketing and product management, Ian Gregory, told pv magazine only 1.75 GW of the 67 GW production capacity audited for the study – 2% – examined European and U.S. facilities.

The majority of the audits were performed by Solarbuyer, which has been part of PI Berlin since the end of 2017. Solarbuyer considered companies with a throughput of 300-1,000 MW ‘smaller manufacturers”. Audits for manufacturers with a production capacity of less than 300 MW were only carried out upon explicit request, said Gregory. As a result, the majority of European manufacturers fell under the radar.

Audits usually came at the request of large project developers or investors and would be updated annually, said Gregory. However, the audits would be performed according to the same parameters to produce comparable results, he said, as investors specifically asked for a comparative element. He added, performance risks are independent of the volume of production.

Standards are rising

The audits used for the white paper were carried out in 2012-18. During that period, the audits achieved incrementally higher scores and approximately 40% of factories were scored ‘good’ or ‘above average’ in 2017. Four years earlier, only 20% achieved such a score. According to Gregory, the audits were also adjusted to match modern module manufacturing processes. For example, quality requirements for the production of half-cut or bifacial modules became included.

The fact remains, however, the audits have little to say about the quality of European module manufacturing, and Gregory pointed to a non-disclosure agreement with manufacturers when asked about the number of European producers that were examined. He said the results of the white paper are an indicator of the shift in production capacity location – which is now predominantly in China and Southeast Asia.

In principle, Gregory said, PI Berlin is in position to audit every manufacturer. That would only pay off, however, if a manufacturer was active on an international scale. Only when investors or banks request the data will PI Berlin earn money in return. The results of the audits are then worked into an audit report for potential buyers. To remain independent, the audits themselves continue to be financed by the auditors.