|Port of Los Angeles|
By TODD WOODY
LOS ANGELES — The solar panels covering a vast warehouse roof in the sun-soaked Inland Empire region east of Los Angeles were only two years into their expected 25-year life span when they began to fail.
Coatings that protect the panels disintegrated while other defects caused two fires that took the system offline for two years, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenues.
It was not an isolated incident. Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers and insurers are reporting similar problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption.
No one is sure how pervasive the problem is. There are no industrywide figures about defective solar panels. And when defects are discovered, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret, making accountability in the industry all the more difficult. ...
Most of the concerns over quality center on China, home to the majority of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity.
After incurring billions of dollars in debt to accelerate production that has sent solar panel prices plunging since 2009, Chinese solar companies are under extreme pressure to cut costs.
Chinese banks in March, for instance, forced Suntech into bankruptcy. Until 2012, the company had been the world’s biggest solar manufacturer.
Executives at companies that inspect Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers said that over the last 18 months they have found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials. Other brand-name manufacturers, they said, have shut down production lines and subcontracted the assembly of modules to smaller makers.
I studied marketing in MBA school over 30 years ago. It was explained to me that marketing was an ever-more sophisticated balancing of competing needs and wants. It was not anticipated by the marketing profs that the Chinese would conquer the world economy with the slogan: "Real cheap. You buy now!"
I bought eight solar powered garden pathway lights at Costco to keep people from tripping at night. With three of the eight, the plastic spikes broke as I tried to push them into the dirt. Other than that, they work great!
I have this hunch that Chinese manufacturers believe that Americans like the act of shopping, like going to the store and tossing stuff into their shopping carts. So, it's okay with us if the stuff they make breaks. In fact, the faster stuff falls apart, the more Americans -- deep down -- like it because that just gives us another excuse to go to the store and toss more crap in our carts, which is what we really like.
They may be right.