No matter which solar company sales representative you invite into your home one thing is true of all of them, they will all tell you they have the best solar panels in the world. So how can they all make such a statement and expect you to believe it. Well quite simply the information required to justify this statement is open to a great deal of misinterpretation and false representation. More than one solar company has been guilty of putting up a claim on its website that it was given a certain award from a certain organisation certifying its chosen panel as being “the best”, only to have the Clean Energy Council (CEC) check up on them and fine them for inventing both the award and the fake organisation they have listed as presenting it. So, is it simply a case of “buyer beware”, or is there a way for the public to look up this information for themselves.
Because solar energy is such a new topic the general public has a limited amount of exposure to or knowledge about it. Unfortunately, it’s not like going out and buying a car which we are all familiar with and have been bought up being aware of. When buying a car we all know that the BMW’s and the Mercedes are the expensive models we pay a lot more for the name and prestige of, that the Protons and the Chery’s are the cheap ones that don’t last very long, the Fords and the Holden’s are the big factory multi-nationals that go alright, and that the Toyota’s and the Mazda’s are a little bit more “pricey”, but are also the most reliable and best-performing ones. So who produces the Mazda 3 of the solar world, i.e. the best performing panel, at a reasonable price?
Firstly let’s deal with the TIER size, according to Pike Research the following definitions apply. This is a term used in Solar to describe the size of the company. Tier 1 companies are your larger companies that spend more than a few dollars on Research and Development, have an Automated Production System and are vertically integrated i.e. they produce the cells themselves in a manufacturing process and manufacture the whole panel from the ground up rather than simply assembling the parts from other manufacturers. Tier 1 companies also have to have been around for more than 5 years, which is a good indication that they have a sustainable business model in the fast changing world of Solar Power. This also means they are likely to still be around to service that 25-year warranty they provide on their products.
Tier 2 companies are considered to have only spent a small amount of money on Research and Development. Will only have a partially automated manufacturing process, and therefore an element of manual labour will be used. Usually they will have been operational for only 2-5 years.
Tier 3 Companies are not considered to be spending any money on Research and Development, have manual production lines, and only assemble the panels they sell after buying all the components from other companies. These companies are generally only considered to have been around for 1-2 years and make around 90% of the panels on today’s market.
In my opinion, the whole idea of the Tier system is okay as far as eliminating Tier 3 companies from the equation. There are plenty of Tier 2 companies about to qualify for the Tier 1 stage that are in a considerably more stable financial situation than some of the big Tier 1 companies struggling with massive debt, product quality issues and falling sales. The whole broad ruling of the Tier system detracts from the main issue of how well the panel performs and how long it will last, which is what the consumer needs to be assured of.
The only measurable system the public has access to in doing their independent research is that provided by Photon International. Their annual performance and yield test results do offer a level playing field, but again it’s how you interpret these results that counts. The test site for the panels is in Germany a country with a temperate climate which has extremes of cold and relative warmth. We here in Australia have a far different climate and particularly in South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales where I am based we get no snow and maybe only a little frost, but high Summer temperatures. So immediately we have a difference to be considered in the data presented by the Photon report.
In general terms Mono-crystalline panels are considered to perform better than Poly-crystalline panels, however, the latest Photon report for 2013 shows only a 0.6% difference in the top panel in each field, which is hardly significant until you compound that difference over 25 years. Also as I stated above the conditions here in Australia are different to those in Germany. All my reading and research seems to agree, that in higher temperature conditions like those in Australia, it is Poly-crystalline that performs better than Mono-crystalline. This would result in removing 8 of the top 15 panels from the test as an appropriate choice for my location.
Of the 7 remaining Multi-crystalline panels only 2 have been on test for longer than 2013’s new entrants into the test (Seraphim and Siliken) and one of those is now no longer in production (Siliken). On taking a closer look at the only panel with a two year history of being tested from Seraphim several key points emerge;-
- They were installed in October 2011, which means they were subjected to environmental degrading for 3 months before testing and recording began, (this is important to consider as panels are generally thought to degrade most in their first year around 2-2.5% and then have a more linear degradation of around 1% per year).
- The first years (2012 Test Results) Performance ratio of these panels was 93.6% which is 0.3% higher than the best of the new Multi’s on test for 2013 (Hanwa Q Cells) and only 0.4% behind the top Mono (Sopray), for the 2013 test. Based on these facts the Seraphim panels are the best performing Multi’s based on their initial performance ratio.
- They were the top performing Multi for 2012 with only Sunpower Thin Film Panels out-performing them in this test. Again thin film panels are not deemed suitable for the harsh Australian conditions and Photon are currently reviewing the testing procedures for these types of panels which has resulted in their removal from the test results posted in 2013.
- The Seraphim panels are the highest placed panel that have a two year history on test and have only lost 1% in performance in the time between the two tests.
- If the test was adjusted to show initial performance ratios and then subsequent annual results, then instead of 12th place on the chart Seraphim would come in at number 3.
- Further to the Photon International tests the Seraphim Panels have been the first panels to pass the new Thresher Test initiated by TUV SUD in Germany. This is a test designed to be 3 times more stringent than the current IEC tests towards the consistency of output and longevity of the panel.
- The partnership with FUJIFILM on developing a new more stable backing plate for their panels has been a key factor in the attainment of this new award.
- As a result of the Thresher test award Seraphim have been able to increase both the manufacturing (12 years), and performance (90% at 15 years and 80% at 30 years), warranties with the full backing of their financial partners.
- No other panel currently in production has a proven test history that can match that of Seraphim panels.
- The Renesola panel at number 8 on the chart is listed as a Quasi-Mono panel which according to the company product literature, supposedly means it is a Multi that performs like a Mono. It’s score of only 93.1% even if counted as a Multi for the terms of this report is still 0.5% behind the initial performance of the Seraphim panels.
While the Photon International test is a great indication of the performance on the panels it does have its flaws. I for one would like to see a year by year comparison chart for those panels that have been on test for longer, as I believe this is of major concern seeing how most of last year’s top 20 panels have dropped down the rankings on performance in only 12 months. To do this Photon would have to accurately measure the available sunlight on sight and work out a conversion between each year of the test to allow for the difference in yield available each year.
Also stated in the report is the fact that the panels were not cleared of snow during the winter season. Having looked at the accompanying picture of this I would have to point out that those panels mounted on the upper tier of the test racking were presented with a slightly higher temperature and exposure to sunlight causing the snow to melt and clear from them at a faster rate than those below and that this has therefore allowed those panels a very slight advantage over those placed on the lower racking. I believe that Photon should address this matter by mounting all panels at the same height above the ground and also ensure the snow and any other physical barriers (e.g. bird excrement), should be cleared from the panels at the earliest opportunity for all future testing purposes.
The test authors have stated that they consider there to be little difference between panels scoring within 0.5% of each other, due to the variables of the test site and procedure used. This would put the Seraphim panels on a par with the top performing panel on the list based on initial performance ratios.
Even my own interpretation of the Photon Test results will be open to criticism, however I believe the results and my conclusions will help anyone living in the South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales pocket, make an informed decision on the best panel available to them on the market at present. With the new Thresher test adding to the already impressive results in two consecutive Photon International Reports, and their developmental partnership with Fujifilm. Couple this to the increased warranty periods covered by a company with a 44 year history of innovation and development, and it leads me to believe that the SERAPHIM panels are currently the best available on the market.
With the upcoming review of the Renewable Energy Targets (RET’s) by the Federal Government and the likely reduction or scrapping of the current Small Trading Certificate (STC) rebates, it is likely that there will be a sharp increase in the cost of solar systems across Australia as it changes from a buyer’s to a seller’s market once more. As occurred with the cut-off date for the 44c tariff removal in Queensland, and with the public attempting to cash in on these government rebates before their reduction or removal, the solar landscape will once again have to evolve. During such a rush of consumer activity, there is bound to be a great many quick and high-pressure sales decisions made. Consequently, a great many mistakes will be made, that will cost the consumer a great deal of money if they are not careful in the choices they make. My advice would be to start your research and fit your system now, as I firmly believe there will never be a better time to do so.
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