When a solar panel company fails, it’s easy to blame a government
Posted On June 20, 2021
Solar panels are among the most important technologies in the energy industry, but their durability is often in question.
They can take hits from a hail storm, be hit by lightning, or get caught in a tree limb.
The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that the cost of a solar system could cost as much as $100,000 and can run $1,000 to $3,000 per watt, depending on how the panels are designed and how they are manufactured.
“Solar panels are the future,” says David W. Smith, a solar analyst with the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“They’re going to be the replacement for fossil fuels.
They’re going a long way in mitigating climate change.”
In fact, it could be years before solar power becomes more widespread, says Steve J. Luecke, director of energy policy at the Solar Foundation, an advocacy group.
“In the long run, the cost will be too high,” he says.
“The more people that use solar power, the higher the cost.”
And that’s because the cost can vary wildly depending on the size of the system, the size and configuration of the panels, the type of system, and the type and location of the power plant.
Solar panels can be used in multiple applications: utility-scale, residential, industrial, and utility-side.
“A system that is not designed to handle a solar storm will likely not last as long as one that has been designed to withstand it,” says John B. Orenstein, director for energy policy studies at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
A system built for an emergency might be fine for an industrial storm, but a system designed to store excess solar energy will likely fail, he says, especially if it’s being used in an industrial environment.
“We have a lot of examples of systems that are designed to take a storm, and they fail,” says Orensteins.
The solar industry has come a long ways from the era of “waste-in-a-bucket” systems that didn’t last.
In the late 1970s, a system that could store excess energy from a solar farm was put into a truck and driven to a site.
The truck then took the energy to a large power plant and stored it in the power grid.
The system, known as a “spark” system, could be deployed by a utility or power company and could be a big help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But that technology is not as common today.
It’s often a more expensive option than a solar power plant, and it’s not as reliable.
And while there are some programs that offer incentives for solar systems to store power, such as solar energy rebates and state incentives, most utilities are reluctant to offer solar systems.
“This technology has become much more expensive and is much more difficult to deploy and maintain than what it used to be,” says B.J. Gillett, president and CEO of the American Solar Association.
And as utilities look to invest in new solar projects, the industry is seeing increasing resistance from solar power providers.
“Utilities are very wary of offering new solar power because it’s less reliable and it doesn’t come with a long-term cost advantage,” says Luef.
In a letter to the Energy Department, the American Electric Power Association said that while solar power is still a promising energy technology, it faces increasing competition from cheaper, “alternative” energy sources.
“With solar energy becoming more affordable, utilities are increasingly seeking to expand their solar portfolio, which will result in reduced customer access to solar power,” the letter said.
“While utility-owned and operated power plants are able to provide the same energy and at lower prices, utilities must look at how to increase solar generation to meet growing demand.”
So how does a solar company fail?
A company like Sunrun, which has been operating in Washington state for 30 years, has a clear picture of the industry, says Billett.
The company uses technology to store and manage solar energy, but it’s more complex than a typical solar power system.
“You have to be able to get out of a grid, but you have to have a system for when there’s a power failure,” he said.
In other words, the company is working to ensure that the systems that it has are robust enough to withstand a solar event, and that the failure is not a short-term one.
For instance, Sunrun has installed a new system that can withstand solar storms but not a failure from a lightning strike.
“Sunrun has had many failures and it has had a lot,” says Smith.
“There’s a lot more risk of a system failing, than you’d think.
It is also an industry that is very decentralized.”
The problem, says Lues, is that the energy company is not