|Guidelines and standards provide a level playing field for all parties. Retailers, purchasing agencies and consumers must be able to evaluate the merits of solar devices based on a common set of industry-approved standards if we hope to achieve broad market penetration.|
|Report by Rob McMonagle & Marc Rydel, ICP Solar|
The issue of establishing industry approved standards for the products of the solar energy industry couldn't come at a more critical time for the North American solar industry. Our sector is at a crucial stage in its growth and development. Solar is the fastest growing global energy source - in 2003 alone the solar electric industry grew by 36% internationally. Early adopting consumers in North America are now beginning to use solar power after years of industry and government sponsored education and the investment of millions of dollars. The combination of a more environmentally conscious public, increasing energy costs, and advances in solar technology have come together to form an ideal environment for growth. The elements are almost all in place for the industry to grow at an unprecedented rate with the resulting increase in new firms selling solar products - from specialty chains to big box merchandisers jumping on to the bandwagon. You need look no further than the garden light section of your local Home Depot to recognize how fast solar powered devices have become an accepted part of life.
So why worry about standards?
The answer is quite straightforward. If consumers cannot access easy to understand, reliable guidelines for comparing the power output and effectiveness of solar energy products such as photovoltaic modules or solar hot water heaters, they will be unable to make informed buying decisions and their confidence on the performance and reliability of solar products will be diminished. Even worse, if the information they obtain is false and the product does not live up to its performance claims, then the consumer will assume that solar energy does not perform in our territories. Very few solar systems have the accurate monitoring equipment that is needed to verify the performance claims versus actual output of a system - particularly solar thermal and small consumer PV systems. The consumer's perception of the entire industry is thus tainted and the chance of them recommending solar to their neighbours or friends is slim to impossible.
A solar PV module might deliver twelve watts of power in a controlled environment on a sunny day and only seven watts on a cloudy day in the real world. So how much power does that device generate - twelve or seven? And how do you compare this module with another module's claims?
Establishing a common set of standards for evaluating and measuring solar energy output and having the tests done by in independent testing lab is critical for consumer confidence in the industry.
Independent Q&A testing conducted by the Centre of Renewable Energy Systems Technology confirms that four PV modules that were all marketed as 15 watt modules delivered quite different outputs under the exact same conditions (see figure #1). Similar tests conducted by Bodycote Materials Testing revealed similar discrepancies.
What is not evident in this chart and the real underlying issue, is that Company D's products are sold at a significant discount to the other firms' products. This gives Company D a significant market advantage, as consumers will naturally purchase the cheaper product if they believe that the performance is similar. When the product does not meet the consumer's needs (but continues to produce power) then the consumer will simply assume that solar does not supply much energy.
Sass Peress, CEO of ICP Solar of Montreal, and an outspoken advocate for the establishment of standards for the solar industry is adamant the present situation could very quickly become the industry's Achilles Heel.
"More than ever, the solar industry sits at a pivotal moment where we have an opportunity to engage the public and government in helping us grow," said Mr. Peress. "To lose their confidence because of a lack of standards and to have them deceived by inferior panels that don't output their claimed ratings, under any condition, is a travesty that is now, and in the future affecting us all. The sooner we rally together and help consumers understand what they are buying, the sooner we will have a happy customer. And we all know that happy customers are loyal customers."
Guidelines and standards provide a level playing field for all parties. Retailers, purchasing agencies and consumers must be able to evaluate the merits of solar devices based on a common set of industry-approved standards if we hope to achieve broad market penetration.
So where do we go from here?
In the short term, all manufacturers of products sold should agree to independent testing and reporting on the output of their devices under standard conditions that duplicate closely real world conditions. Standards exist in for solar DHW systems and can be tested to this standard using independent laboratories. Solar electric modules have similar international standards which they, also, can be tested to.
Retailers must ask the tough questions - insist that the products you sell to your customers have been performance tested by recognized testing organizations. If the product is not labeled or the manufacturer can't supply that information, then find a supplier who will.
Government agencies that are purchasing solar products or are responsible for deployment programs should insist that all qualifying products meet an industry acceptable standard before they are purchased or included in a program.
Consumers must look beyond the selling price. Demand proof of performance. Insure that you purchase products from a reputable supplier - industry members must sign a code of ethics that insure that its members do not make false performance claims. Take some time to learn about the characteristics of solar. Talk to knowledgeable suppliers and get the answers you need to make an informed decision.
These small steps lay the groundwork for setting standards to insure that solar power becomes a recognized, trusted, mass-market energy source."