Testing times to bring down the costs of solar

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A 100lb punch bag, sandbags and a ball bearing the size of your fist are not necessarily what you would associate with state-of-the-art testing for solar panels.

But at UL's solar laboratories in San Jose, California, these experiments that look like they were cooked up in an eccentric inventor's garden shed, put panels of all flavours through their paces on safety testing before they reach the US market.

The boxer's punch bag is dropped side-on like a wrecking ball onto an upright panel in a simulation of what could happen in a real-world installation if, say, a tree fell against it. Panels always shatter in the impact test, but small chunks are better than tiny shards, Chris Paxton, engineering leader of product safety, told me.

Sandbags weighing up to 55lb are placed on the front and back of panels to simulate snowfall and wind uplift on a roof. The ball bearing mimics what would happen should a monkey wrench fall from an installer's tool belt.

But manufacturers have been clamouring to have their finished products and prototypes feel the full force of UL's destructive tests for four years.

Their cherished panels endure the full cycle of testing that includes being baked to 90°C and frozen to minus 40°C in huge ovens up to 1,000 times over and being shot at by a high-pressure gun that fires round ice bullets designed to mimic hail.

These are the experiments that can cause visible damage. But there are the more scientific experiments for standards such as flash tests, the continuous simulator for light-soaking, indoor temperature testing and hotspot endurance tests that burn through substrates like a cigarette in simulations of shading.

The only test that UL doesn't carry out in San Jose is setting fire to panels because of objections from the city council. But fire safety is a critical test in a country where many systems are installed in high-risk wildfire zones, such as California, said Evelyn Butler, director of energy and fuelling systems.

UL, a global safety testing and certification company, opened its solar testing lab in July 2008. But demand rapidly outstripped UL's capacity and it soon had to expand, said Butler.

“At that time, China was booming with manufacturers. We knew because there were a lot of government policies that were friendly towards solar and the market was getting itself well-established. But UL's lab grew more than we expected.”

Since then, companies keen to get a share of the US market have all become clients, including Hanwha SolarOne, Kyocera Corp, REC Solar AS, Sharp, Solar Systems Group, Sunpower, Trina, Yingli and inverter company SMA.

Thin film and CPV are also tested at UL, some of them still only in prototype form and kept heavily under wraps. On the day of my visit, Stion and Suntrix appeared to have still-boxed samples to test.

It takes a minimum of 40-42 days to cycle through the testing system, a far cry from five years ago when testing could take as long as a year, according to UL.

Thanks to its overnight success in San Jose, UL had to add five other testing labs around the world – India, China and Germany were obvious choices.

“We offer market access and provide an opportunity to understand product performance which helps investors, banks and utilities,” said Butler. “There is a general expectation that these products are going to last 15, 20, 25 years. Insurers need to know how to underwrite the warranty and safety and performance standards are crucial for companies that have only been around for a couple of years.

“A 5MW project takes around 24,000 modules – that's a huge number of modules. Testing might add US$0.01-US$0.02 per watt but at least they can explain that to investors.”

But today's testing times are about to get even more intense as the solar industry undergoes dramatic consolidation.

“We're always monitoring what is going on,” said Butler. “The trade case has had an impact on our business and manufacturers seem not to be bringing out new designs.

“Consolidation was expected but it started happening sooner than expected and is more rapid. That means some companies have decided not to be part of the industry and focus on other technologies.

“But we remain optimistic as solar is estimated to grow.”

Meanwhile, down in New Mexico, mega-minds at Sandia National Labs are developing a network of testing labs to help prove to investors that the products that they lay down cash for are going to give them the return as advertised by project developers and manufacturers.

Regional Test Centres (RTCs) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Denver, Colorado and Orlando, Florida, are about to get the green light from the US Department of Energy to put identical PV installations through their paces in different climates.

Denver was chosen for its Steppe climate – hot in summer, cold in winter; Albuquerque is a hot-dry climate and Orlando has a hot-humid climate.

The idea to develop three RTCs was hatched during a DoE PV Manufacturing Workshop at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) last March to supplement SunShot programmes.

“The aim will be to validate the performance of PV systems, verify and validate models used to predict performance, collect detailed operations and maintenance (O&M) data and investigate the role of various environmental (climatic) factors on reliability, durability and safety of PV technologies,” said the DoE.

Project developers will be able to use this data to go to the bank and potentially raise financing more easily, said Joshua Stein, a distinguished member of technical staff at Sandia.

“The impression I get is that there is a perceived higher degree of uncertainty among the financing community with both how the system will perform – how many kwh will you get out of the system – how long will it last, how much will it cost to maintain. Due to that perceived uncertainty, the cost of borrowing money for a PV system is larger.

“The idea is to provide information in an aggregated form to investors and other folks who have a financial interest in the PV technologies so there is third party verification and we can predict its performance.

“If we're all using the same methods then you can start to say we've tested our products at this test lab, in this region and they all use the same standard techniques and therefore you bring that to the bank and it's a little bit easier.

“You have to convince the independent engineering community who are working for the banks to have high confidence that this technology will perform.”

But Stein hopes the project will expand so that private labs can participate and become RTCs.

“The goals of the RTC, we talked about this a lot when we were planning this project. We've all agreed that the goals of the RTC are to use these facilities to develop the methods by which you can validate technology. We're going to be trying it out and perfecting it with real new technologies as the starting point.

“But the ultimate goal of these is to really come up with a set of standards whereby other private labs could then participate and be RTCs.”

Will the regional labs lead to breakthroughs in innovation that is more suited to certain types of technology?

“There has been talk about designing modules for a specific region to match the spectral content of the light. I don't think the industry is mature enough yet to do that,” he said.


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