What do customers want from PV suppliers?


For the third year in a row, IHS conducted a survey of customers of PV inverters. This time, the survey has been expanded to also gain insight into the customers’ opinions on suppliers of PV modules and energy storage. The independent survey, which ran for four months from October 2013 through January 2014, also included questions proposed by suppliers.
In total, the survey received over 500 qualified responses from distributors, installers, integrators and other individuals responsible for purchasing PV inverters, modules and energy storage systems. Respondents from more than 50 different countries, including Germany, the United States, China and the United Kingdom, were asked over 140 questions on a variety of subjects.
For customers of PV inverter suppliers, IHS enhanced the survey, asking over 70 questions on a variety of subjects including brand and choice of supplier, inverter choice, product features, microinverters and power optimizers, future requirements, service and warranty, and inverter pricing.

Brand preferences

Respondents were asked to provide information regarding their brand preferences and choice of supplier. Globally, SMA Solar Technology was ranked as havingthe strongest brand for the third consecutive year in 2013 as shown in Table 1, though the number of customers who preferred this brand decreased substantially compared with 2012. Even though there were a few market exits, mergers and acquisitions in the inverter business in 2013, the percentage of participants who preferred the top four brands decreased from 2012 to 2013. Customers specified over 80 different inverter brands and there were two new entries in the global top ten preferred brands. For the first time, one Chinese inverter supplier was among the top five inverter brands in the United Kingdom, which highlights the growing acceptance of Chinese inverter suppliers outside of China, especially in markets where they have been active for a few years.
For the third consecutive year, in nearly all countries most customers preferred using three inverter brands. In Germany, 8% of the customers said that they preferred using five or more inverter brands, more than in most countries. Last year, the competitive environment was very difficult for suppliers in Germany, as inverter prices reached record lows and were forecast to fall further in 2014. IHS expects that a small proportion of inverter customers may continue to prefer to use more than five inverter brands for security reasons, in case one or another supplier quits the market.
In 2013 62% of the customers had a preferred brand, which was nine percentage points lower than in 2011. Lower prices and higher quality were the main reasons inverter suppliers cited to persuade customers to choose one brand. However 2% of customers mentioned there was nothing that inverter suppliers could offer to persuade them to use only one single brand.

Product features

Many respondents, 28%, noted that not all of their requirements are met by the currently available inverters. This number was five percentage points less than in the survey conducted two years ago. This highlights that inverter suppliers are slowly meeting their customer needs. In an open-ended question to which the survey respondents could enter any answer, customers noted that energy storage and improved monitoring were the new features most requested in PV inverters. In last year’s survey, a wider maximum power point tracker (MPPT) range was the main product feature requested; this year the MPPT range was not among the top three most requested features.
Over the last few years, inverter suppliers have released new inverters with higher input voltages – typically up to 1,000 VDC – as this was one method of differentiating their products and reducing balance of system (BOS) costs. Of the respondents 34% expected the maximum DC input voltage in inverters to increase over the next two years. A large proportion of customers expect this trend to continue because it enables lower BOS costs and better efficiencies from PV systems and it is expected to increase demand from end users and drive the development of higher voltage modules.

Chinese inverter suppliers

Chinese inverter suppliers have steadily increased their shipments over the last few years and have expanded beyond their booming domestic market. Initially, they expanded into rapidly developing PV markets such as Australia and the United Kingdom, but increasingly they are expanding into mature PV markets such as Germany.
One important customer concern is whether Chinese inverters are of acceptable quality. This has been one of the greatest challenges facing Chinese suppliers, particularly as many suppliers offer very competitive pricing. However, in the survey, 50% of the respondents acknowledged that Chinese inverters do offer acceptable levels of quality; compared with 30% in 2011 as shown in Table 2. This shows that, although some of the early Chinese entrants into the inverter market may have had varying levels of quality, the opinion of end customers is changing rapidly.
For example, the U.K. market, where Chinese suppliers have been active for a few years, had the highest percentage of respondents who thought that Chinese inverter quality was acceptable. This contrasted with the U.S. market, which had the lowest percentage. It must be noted that in the United States, relatively few Chinese suppliers have UL-certified inverters or are active yet in the utility-scale market that has been the largest segment of the U.S. market for the last few years. Also, more than half of the integrators and EPCs globally did not think Chinese inverters offered acceptable quality, more than the percentage of installers or distributors.
Despite Chinese inverters having more acceptable quality, they still raise many concerns. For example, inadequate technical and after sales service was one of the main reasons globally why customers did not think they offered acceptable levels of quality. Although Chinese inverter suppliers are well known for offering very competitive pricing, one of their deficiencies, particularly outside China, is in providing local after-sales service. While they are improving, by hiring local technical support technicians in each country where they are active, or by having warehouses with spares in key countries to reduce the time to replace inverters, respondents still indicate that they are falling short. Other notable concerns of respondents were bankability (low financial risk), experience of the supplier, inverter reliability and efficiency. Their importance depended considerably on the customer type or country.

Table 1: Preferred PV inverter brands
Source: IHS Report “PV Inverter Customer Insight Survey – 2014”


Microinverter shipments have been steadily increasing over the last few years. Microinverters are one of the fastest growing power classes in the inverter market.
Shipments are forecast to increase by 60% in 2014 to reach 0.9 GW by year’s end and this will primarily be due to microinverter shipments increasing to new markets, particularly in Australia and Japan. The survey found that there was a five percentage point increase in the respondents who would use or purchase microinverters from 2012. The United States had the highest percentage of respondents that use or purchase microinverters; the majority of respondents from Germany and the United Kingdom do not use or purchase them.
For customers who use or purchase microinverters, there is growing evidence that they prefer to use an AC module, i.e. a microinverter integrated into the solar PV module. In 2013 48% of respondents answered that they would prefer to use an AC module, up from 34% in 2011.
Survey respondents gave numerous reasons why they would or would not use or purchase microinverters. The most common reasons for using or purchasing microinverters were to combat shading, to allow use of multiple roof orientations, or because they were requested by end-users. The most common reasons for respondents not using or purchasing microinverters were higher costs, reliability concerns, and that they had not been asked to use them by customers.

Table 2: Percentage of respondents that think Chinese inverter products offer acceptable levels of quality
Year% of respondents
Source: IHS Report “PV Inverter Customer Insight Survey – 2014”
Table 3: Preferred PV module brands
#1 Overall preferred brandYingli Solar
#1 Preferred brand in terms of module qualitySunPower
#1 Preferred brand in terms of price attractivenessYingli Solar
Brand most commonly requested by end customersSunPower
Source: IHS Report “PV Module Customer Insight Survey – 2014”
Table 4: Have you experienced any product failures in installations of energy storage solutions in PV systems? (Weighted by largest market.)
Source: IHS Report “Energy Storage in PV Customer Insight Survey – 2014”

Power optimizers

Of those surveyed 27% stated that they used or purchased power optimizers, up from 16% of respondents surveyed in 2011. In the most recent survey, the United Kingdom had the highest percentage of respondents who would use power optimizers. Two years ago, the United States had the highest percentage.
As with microinverters, some of the main reasons why respondents use power optimizers are to combat shading and allow modules to be used in multiple roof orientations. Two years ago, the main reason for not using power optimizers was insufficient knowledge of the technology. However, this year, it is that they are too expensive.

Module brands

IHS surveyed PV module purchasers for the first time and expanded on its previously established PV inverter customer insight survey. This enabled module suppliers to gain further insight into the decision-making process and opinions of their customers.
IHS received over 200 quality responses and asked 30 detailed questions on a variety of topics including brand and choice of supplier, module choice, and the effects of antidumping legislation imposed on Chinese imports to the EU and the United States.
The survey asked respondents to name the brands they preferred overall, and the top brands in terms of module quality and price attractiveness. Three Chinese brands were in the global top five most preferred brands. In total, 101 different module brands were mentioned. Yingli Solar was ranked as having the strongest brand in 2013, as shown in Table 3 (p. 38). Chinese brands were most preferred by integrators/EPCs, whilst installers were less likely to prefer them.
SunPower was recognized as the best supplier in terms of module quality, occupying top spot amongst a top three which were all non-Chinese suppliers. In terms of price attractiveness, the top five most recognized suppliers were all Chinese, contributing to the general view that Chinese suppliers provide lower quality goods but have the most competitive pricing.
In most countries, most respondents preferred to use three brands. In the United Kingdom, 29% of respondents preferred using five or more module brands, more than elsewhere.

Module choice

When asked which supplier attributes were most important when selecting a manufacturer, competitive pricing was commonly selected, a trait most associated with Chinese suppliers. Warranties or performance guarantees offered and bankability (financial stability of the manufacturer) were the second and third most important attributes. Respondents were also asked what aspects influenced their purchasing decisions when selecting a module. Module reliability and quality were both ranked above low prices, which was the third most important aspect. In Germany, respondents suggested they rated aspects relating to module reliability, quality, efficiency and power ratings, over low pricing.

Antidumping legislation

Over a third of respondents stated they had been affected by the EU antidumping trade case. Respondents from the United Kingdom and Germany were the most affected, with 59% and 44% of respondents affected respectively. Higher prices andhaving to source modules from non-Chinese suppliers were the most commonly stated effects of the antidumping tariffs.
In 2013 20% of respondents stated their purchasing of PV modules had been affected by the antidumping tariffs imposed on Chinese imports to the United States. Respondents cited higher prices, longer lead times or availability issues, and having to source modules from non-Chinese suppliers as the most common side effects.

Energy Storage Consideration

Expanding on its energy storage research, and for the first time, IHS conducted a survey on PV energy storage solutions purchasers. The PV energy storage survey report was undertaken to enable suppliers to gain insight into the opinions of installers, distributors and integrators on energy storage.
IHS received over 300 quality responses and asked 40 questions on a variety of topics. Depending on customer type, distributors/wholesalers, installers and integrators/EPCs were asked questions on their current involvement and interest in energy storage in PV solutions, on product offerings and on their concerns with the technology.
Similar proportions of distributors and installers currently offer energy storage products, would consider offering energy storage products, or were not considering energy storage products in the future.
Distributors/installers stated the main reason for considering offering energy storage was because it is an opportunity to expand their current product offerings. They also expected customer demand for energy storage would increase. Of the respondents that do not offer energy storage products, 36% currently receive requests (from their end customers) for energy storage. The United Kingdom had the highest proportion of requests for energy storage, with 42% of installers and distributors receiving such requests.

Interest in energy storage

Almost 90% of respondents expected the proportion of PV systems they installed with an energy storage solution would increase in 2014. The main reasons given were increased customer demand, increased customer awareness of grid services and increased interest in self-consumption. The remaining 10% of respondents felt there would be no increase in customer demand and that the cost of the technology would not be competitive in 2014.
Installers were asked whether they received customer enquiries about additional energy storage options and how frequently. Over half the respondents had said less than 20% of their customers that initially enquired about the addition of an energy storage solution in a new PV system went ahead to order a system with storage included. Respondents were subsequently asked what drove their customers to enquire about energy storage solutions. The most common reasons given were the desire to become more independent of the electricity grid and to increase on-site self-consumption.

Product offerings

More than a third of distributors and installers currently offer two different energy storage products to their customers. When asked if they had a preference for a particular product type, a PV inverter and battery sold as separate products (instead of integrated) was most commonly selected.
Lead-acid was the most preferred battery technology of distributors and installers, mainly because it is an established and low cost technology.

Concerns with storage solutions

Installers were asked whether they experienced any product failures in installations of energy storage solutions in PV systems. Almost two thirds of respondents from the United States had experienced product failures (as shown in Table 4), including battery failures, power electronic failures and fire hazards. In comparison, installers from Germany and the United Kingdom experienced very low product failure rates.
Approximately 75% of EPCs had installed less than 10 MW of PV systems with energy storage in 2013. These respondents were also asked the reasons why they deployed energy storage in PV systems. The most common reason given was to provide off-grid power. In regards to deploying energy storage in PV systems, integrators/EPCs were mostly concerned with high battery prices.

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