Are All Solar Modules Created Equal?
Solar modules are pretty magical. The idea that exposing materials to the sun can make electrons move to create an electrical current can be hard to fathom for those of us who are visual learners. That these modules can generate enough energy to power a home or business is even more incredible. As with any other type of consumer product, quality and performance vary by manufacturer. Maine solar customers often trust their installer to navigate the module marketplace and provide a good product. One challenge that occurs as the solar market becomes more competitive is the temptation to select solar modules based primarily on cost. This is especially true in tight markets such as Maine. A recent study published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that Maine installs solar at prices lower than almost every other state in the country. This is remarkable considering the additional overhead costs associated with winter weather in Maine and the complexity of homes in our state (they sure aren’t single-story ranch homes in Florida!). As with all we do, Insource Renewables takes a very deliberate approach to selecting a module manufacturer. We recognize that most of our clients are depending upon us to select companies that are worth supporting. We also are very careful to align our spending with our values. We look to support companies that take very seriously their treatment of workers and the environment. Here’s what we consider:
Performance and durability
While solar has many benefits, the factor that motivates a large majority of our clients is costs savings. Most people care about the return on their investment. To return the best value, we want a module that is going to withstand Maine’s harsh environment for decades. Modules need to be able to withstand the snow, ice, and marine environments common in our state. One of the easiest ways to predict the longevity of a module is to look at its history in these environments. Reputation means a lot to us, and we take this into account when selecting a module manufacturer. Almost every reputable module manufacturer in the market now offers a 25-year performance guarantee. We expect modules to last for 3 or 4 decades, and this backing helps to ensure that there will be financial backing from the manufacturer if their modules don’t meet this expectation. Of course, a guarantee is only effective if the company is around to honor it. The world of solar manufacturing has taken a lot of manufacturers out of the market in the last 5-6 years, so selecting a company that will be around is critical. One metric we have for this is Bloomberg’s list of Tier 1 suppliers. This list is based on the bankability of a company and considers how much risk investors make by selecting a particular manufacturer. Our three major module manufacturers – REC, LG, and Trina – are all listed as Tier 1 suppliers.
Environmental and labor practices
Everyday we vote with our dollars. We want our money to support companies that value the environment and their workers. Given that the manufacturing process takes place a long way from our headquarters in Pittsfield, Maine, we look to third-party evaluations of solar manufacturers. The most prominent is the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition’s Solar Scorecard. This metric rates companies on their commitment to using nontoxic materials, adhering to worker-centered labor practices, and their commitment to the environment. The disparity between companies can be rather stark. REC and Trina have consistently rated among the top global manufacturers in environmental and labor practices. LG has been working its way up from the middle of the pack.
Country of origin
Living in the heart of a region that has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing companies, we are sensitive to outsourcing (hence our name) and the benefits in support companies that support U.S. workers. Several years ago U.S. module manufacturers were decimated due largely to the dumping of low-cost solar modules that had been subsidized by the Chinese government. This was a controversial issue, but it highlighted the impact that our buying decisions have on global politics and vice versa.
(UPDATE: The issue of U.S. module manufacturing was once again highlighted in trade deliberations that led to tariffs in early 2018. As of the time of this update, we are still trying to identify U.S. manufacturers of solar modules that meet our standards.)
Our primary module supplier, REC, produces its silicon in Washington state and manufacturers its modules at a vertically-integrated plant in Singapore. LG modules are manufactured in South Korea, and Trina is manufactured in China.
Cost and availability
We also recognize that we live in a price sensitive area of the country. We tend to be frugal, too. We have been very fortunate that our preferred manufacturer, REC, also is cost competitive. This has allowed Insource Renewables to “walk the talk” without sacrificing our bottom line.
The results of our research
As a result of these considerations, Insource Renewables works with REC Twin Peak modules as our standard offer. This relationship has created an additional perk – a unique design that is favorable for Maine’s climate. The Twin Peak modules use half-cut cells to create a module that is wired like two modules in one (see below). This means that modules that are shaded on the lower half due to snow or trees are less impacted than standard 60-cell or 72-cell modules. For our customers, Insource Renewables’ module selection process has resulted in a high-performing, aesthetically pleasing product that utilizes U.S.-manufactured silicon from a manufacturer that is bankable and supports strong labor and environmental practices. We feel really good about that.