Repowering is a topic that has emerged in a number of countries where EPCs and developers face performance issues on solar power plants, like in Germany or Italy as far as Europe is concerned. While re-power sounds positive as it means literally giving energy again, the reality is not as beautiful and points towards some of the worst methods in our industry. In the solar business, repowering covers different realities. It can occur at different stages of the life cycle of a solar project. Indeed, one can talk about expending the lifetime of a project that came to his term of 20/25 years. Or about existing projects that did not achieve yet their expected lifetime but where issues related to performance must be fixed. It can also be associated to the economic opportunities aiming at increasing the performances and financial profitability of the plant. Repowering encompasses a number of topics including modules, inverters, monitoring, O&M… Thus, it is a vast topic.
For this blog article, we would like to focus on what we know and love: solar modules. Our objective being to show what it says about our industry and how we should use it collectively to progress. Indeed, we can already say it, there is only one good take away from repowering: learning from failure not to repeat the same mistakes.
The glass half full
One cannot deny that fact that repowering has a positive side. First of all, it brings business. A number of companies, whether they provide services or products, benefit from this market opportunity. Second, some project owners can get the most out of their system and their investment because they keep progressing and learning about how to run a solar plant and this is necessarily positive. Third, some solar power plants can see their performances and financial returns improve, benefiting from the opportunity offered by plummeting material prices. But it is true that are mainly concerned projects done at a time where supporting schemes (FiT…) where generous and solar panels prices five to ten times more expensive than they are today. Thus it is an opportunity that probably won’t come again as the prices are now so low that the absolute financial gain would be much smaller.
The reality – the glass half empty
Beyond some positive sides, there are mainly issues related to repowering.
As for the short term gain related to market demand for a small number of actors, it cannot be a source of satisfaction. Indeed, because an oil spill has some positive economic impacts does not mean an oil spill is good per se. Switching old modules with new modules may be difficult depending on regulations put in place, like it’s the case in Germany or Italy. That’s why making things work right from the beginning is a safer bet. As an industry, we also have environmental duties. Producing solar panels requires energy and raw materials. All in all, we are looking for a sufficient and positive return on energy invested in order to provide the surplus of energy needed to power our complex societies. Becoming an industry satisfied with some sort of planned obsolescence would be an intellectual defeat. Especially because it does not have to be this way.
For most of repowering projects where modules are involved, there are issues related to modules quality. And this should be a source of deep reflection in the module industry of course, but for the market in general as well. Indeed, when a significant part of the modules of large scale projects need to be replaced because of their poor performances, especially in the first years, this is not something trivial. And even more when different brands are involved. It is an industrial accident and a very bad sign that corroborates field studies reviewing significant amount of quality issues on solar panels in operation. This leads to three main conclusions:
– There is room to progress in terms of material selection and overall quality processes. High quality is far from being granted in our industry while this is the basis of our very existence. We already stressed this point when sharing the results of the 2017 Scorecard of DNV-GL.
– The certification supposed to protect against infant mortality did not avoid it. Then we need to go much further and manufacturers need to take their responsibilities.
– Modules buyers should be well aware of that and stop thinking about solar modules as mere commodities while the level of quality between manufacturers is inconsistent.
“Houston, we have a problem”
This is our definition of repowering when modules need to be replaced because of their poor performances. It is something not planned neither anticipated because it is unwanted and was not supposed to happen. So yes this is an affront to the solar panel industry so inclined to praise the reliability of its technology. Indeed, it is possible to make modules that last. But it requires manufacturers to be committed not only to reduce prices and the market to realize that panels are not commodities. To conclude with the words of John Balfour, the President of Astropower Corp., market players should look for “ the least cost PV systems that are reliable, available, maintainable, testable and safe, oh …and profitable.”