Does It Matter Where Your Solar Panels Are Made?
There’s been some debate recently about whether some manufacturers of solar panels are better than others. This is perfectly natural: look at computer processors, where the AMD/Intel debate has been raging for two decades or more. The debate for solar panels was in part prompted by the huge cost reductions that solar has undergone in the last 15 years, both in terms of the cost per panel and the cost per kilowatt of installed solar capacity. In part, this was driven by the meteoric rise of developing world manufacturing capacity for solar panels, particularly in China. Trina Solar, one of the major Chinese solar manufacturers, accounted for about 17% of the installed solar capacity in the United States in 2018 for example
As with Japanese electronics in the 70s and 80s, there’s a broad perception that Chinese goods are of a lower quality and inferior to other, developed-country-manufactured goods. Now, admittedly, this may be true for a few things: tooling and automotive parts, for example, are generally of a lower quality (but significantly cheaper!) if manufactured in China. However, when it comes to a fairly high-tech product like a solar panel, Chinese companies are market leaders for a reason. Both in terms of quantity and quality, Chinese manufacturers are world leaders. So, as a consumer, you probably shouldn’t worry about this, right?
There are a few other factors to consider than product quality and price. First, we can look at what’s called “life-cycle emissions”. Solar panels might produce 100% renewable electricity, but they’re made of silicone and metal that needs to be mined, transported, processed, and assembled and so on. All of these processes have a climate impact in terms of energy use and associated carbon emissions. So, if you’re running a 100% renewable energy system, no problem…but nowhere that is a major solar panel manufacturer is doing this. So, comparing, for example, German-manufactured panels to Chinese-manufactured panels, the Chinese ones have much greater life-cycle emissions, because of the huge proportion of Chinese electricity generation that comes from inefficient coal power . Second, we can look at something more consumer-focused: warranties. A lot of European or American panel manufacturers will offer an extended warranty on solar panels in case of unexpected failures in the first couple of years of operation: however, most Chinese-manufactured panels don’t have these warranties. From a consumer standpoint, this is a clear disadvantage, but the differences in quality are very small.
The final option, of course, would be to just make your own, right? As outlandish as that sounds, it’s not outside the realms of possibility. This approach has some advantages: you can source the components you want with the lowest life-cycle emissions, and ensure that your own manufacturing process is as environmentally-friendly as possible. With a little electrical wizardry, it may be possible to produce something of equal or even higher quality than the large manufacturers, and there’s a wealth of information on the web on how to do just that. For most consumers, however, this is likely more hassle than it’s worth: this blog should help to give you the information you need to make an informed decision on whether your choice of manufacturer is the right one for you.