Along with the warranty, you’ll need to consider the company’s ability to honor its warranty. Is the company (either the installer or the panel maker) an established player in the industry? If not, it’s hard to know how reliable and stable the brand will be
Kyle Pennell | Powerscout
The solar industry is as diverse as any other, and solar panels can vary considerably in their cost, wattage, and appearance. Some solar panel brands are known for consistently producing high-quality panels, while others are known for producing affordable panels of merely average quality. But should the brand itself really be used as a factor when deciding which solar panels to invest in?
Bloomberg New Energy Finance, an energy industry research firm, has developed a system to identify solar brands that have a high degree of “bankability” － the likelihood that a particular manufacturer’s products will be used in solar projects that receive non-recourse debt financing from a financial institution (excluding development banks). Brands that have been financed by at least six banks in the past two years and own their own production facilities qualify for coveted “tier one” status. (Contrary to some sources, BNEF does not publish a tier two or tier three list, but other energy research agencies, which develop their own tiering systems, do.)
Industry analysts and insiders often use the phrase “tier one” as a shorthand to describe brands associated with high quality, but BNEF itself admits that the quality of a brand or panel should not be evaluated using its position within the tier system. Rather, a tier one position only indicates that the manufacturer is trusted by banks and offers a high level of data transparency.
To establish the quality of a panel, it’s more useful to check its efficiency rate, degradation rate, and other performance statistics. In most cases, panels with an average efficiency rate (15 percent) are adequate. But if you’re working with a limited area, investing in solar panels that have a high efficiency is crucial for ensuring you squeeze as much energy as possible out of your setup.
Efficiency is a product of the materials used to produce the solar panel. Some brands favor polycrystalline solar cells, others favor monocrystalline solar cells, and others utilize both. Black solar panels, which use monocrystalline cells, tend to be slightly more efficient since they naturally absorb more light than blue solar panels, which are made with polycrystalline cells. Black and blue panels also differ aesthetically － many homeowners find the smart, minimalistic look of black panels superior to the more traditional blue panels.
Closely tied to efficiency rate is the panel’s degradation rate. As solar panels age, they gradually become less efficient. Most panels degrade at a rate of 0.8 percent annually. In other words, after one year, the panel will produce a maximum of only 99.2 percent of the maximum energy it could produce when it was new. Higher degradation rates mean faster declines in panel output.
Another important factor you should consider when buying solar panels is the warranty they’re sold with. While almost all solar panels offer the same 25-year warranty on the panels themselves, brands differ on their service agreements. When shopping for a home solar system, look for one that has a service warranty that lasts at least 12 years.
Along with the warranty, you’ll need to consider the company’s ability to honor its warranty. Is the company (either the installer or the panel maker) an established player in the industry? If not, it’s hard to know how reliable and stable the brand will be over the long term. Of course, even big companies can go under. But a large company with a strong track record is more likely to honor its warranties, especially if it’s sufficiently diversified. When Dow discontinued its line of Powerhouse solar shingles in 2016, for instance, it nevertheless agreed to honor existing warranties. Brands that are smaller or devoted to a narrower line of solar products are less likely to maintain their warranty agreements after filing for bankruptcy.
Of course, all these qualities － the panel’s efficiency, degradation rate, and warranty length － tend to be closely aligned with the price and the brand of a given solar panel. More prominent brands tend to offer better warranty terms, higher efficiency rates, and lower degradation rates. However, they also tend to be more expensive. When it comes to cheaper solar panels, on the other hand, the opposite is typically true.
But you don’t always need to get your panels from a well-known brand to get good quality. And the needs of your particular solar project are always more important than the brand whose products you use. If you’re interested in outfitting your RV with solar panels, for instance, you’ll be unable to find panels made by LG Energy or Tesla subsidiary SolarCity, which specialize in large, high-wattage panels for homes and businesses.
So does the brand of your solar panels matter? Yes and no. According to PowerScout, a California-based solar startup, the most important thing to do when shopping for solar panels is to compare multiple brands, taking into account their wattage, price, efficiency rates, and other relevant criteria. Then, make a careful evaluation of your budget and of each panel’s unique qualities － including its brand － to make the right choice for your home energy needs.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag
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