Keeping PV panels honest — ACT innovation fund pumps up testing capacity


The ACT Government has awarded a $220,000 grant from its Renewable Energy Innovation Fund (REIF), to expand the solar panel testing carried out by PV Lab, which currently works out of a laboratory of the Australian National University in Canberra.

Michelle McCann told pv magazine that since she and Lawrence McIntosh founded PV Lab in 2013, the operation has tested sample modules for more than 2 GW of solar installations for anomalies that include lower-than-advertised output, micro-cracks that may have occurred during transportation, backsheets made of materials that won’t stand the test of time, and defects such as “wet leakage” in which parts of the panel other than the solar cell become electrified, “which is obviously a safety issue as well as a quality issue”, McCann says.

She sees the rooftop-solar sector in Australia as “on the scale of the largest coal-fired power plants that we build in this country, but it’s a distributed power station, and we don’t as a country have a global check on what goes into that power station. We just put it out there, which is crazy.”

The grant will enable expansion of PV Lab — currently the only commercial testing lab for solar panels in Australia — into its own premises. 

The business will then also apply for international accreditation to the Standard ISO/IEC 17025, which specifies the requirements for carrying out tests and/or calibrations.

“Only a handful of laboratories around the world have this accreditation,” says McCann, “Part of the grant is about getting that so that our customers have the added assurance of this tick that confirms we measure accurately, reliably and repeatedly.”

Developing the ACT as a hub of renewable-energy expertise

On awarding the current round of $1.1 million worth of grants from the Fund, ACT Sustainability Minister Shane Rattenbury said they were intended to provide more renewable energy solutions grown in the ACT.

Other recipients include eMobility consultancy and software-as-a-service provider Evenergi, which received $235,000 towards a heavy-electric-vehicle simulation platform; and ACT-based electricity and gas distributor Evoenergy, which received $250,000 to conduct a subsidised-battery trial at the Ginninderry housing development to analyse how areas with 100% rooftop solar uptake will use batteries to manage interactions with local electricity infrastructure.

“The grant recipients are very diverse,” said Rattenbury, “but they are all working in the space of the future of the energy grid and reducing emissions and using renewable fuel supplies.”

Late last year, the ACT became the first among Australian states and territories to have its electricity delivered 100% from renewable sources, and in December it established the REIF to  drive “the long-term development and sustainability of the renewable energy industry in the ACT”.

Chasing 3% more output from Australia’s solar fleet

McCann said she and McIntosh are still driven by having been told when they were still a startup that if a manufacturer believes their products will be tested in a particular market, they will deliver superior quality products into that market, such that, “you’ll get 3% more power output from day one”.

She says some solar panel manufacturers may have multiple production lines, not all of which produce panels of the claimed output and quality: “If you’re selling a 350-watt panel and it has 345-watt output and it’s going to the residential sector, unless they test, no one will ever notice”, says McCann.

Developers of large-scale solar today typically run checks of the goods they receive, or hire PV Lab to do so, and have contracts in place to be able to enforce penalties if the quality and output of delivered product does not live up to the agreed specifications.

In other markets, such as Germany, solar industries have grown from a base of large-scale solar, and the quality-assurance practices have flowed on to rooftop PV sectors.

Australians have a reputation as bargain hunters

“In Australia, we’ve been vulnerable to poor product because our market is upside down compared to the rest of the world — we started more with a massive domestic market,” McCann says, adding that Australians also have a reputation for pushing price reduction over quality.

“I’ve said to people, ‘This is a new product and it’s already 12% underpowered’, says McCann. “And sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s OK, it cost 30% less, so I’m still ahead.” She often has to explain that a poor product is also unlikely to last the promised distance; if it stops working after four years, then it’s no longer a cheap deal.

The market has matured over the years since PV Lab began its work. The Clean Energy Council, for example, maintains a list of approved solar equipment — panels, batteries, inverters — that meet Australian standards and are eligible for Small-scale Technology Certificates, which helps installers to raise the standard of rooftop systems.

Testing at import and periodically in the life cycle of solar plant

PV Lab tests panels at different stages, from receipt of goods to various points during the life cycle of the product 

“We’ll often test at import for someone who’s building a large solar farm and wants to know that they got what they paid for,” says McCann. Australian distributors sometimes also want to check that their goods have arrived intact and meet the expected quality.

McCann says being able to ensure that the all-too-common 3% performance gap between promised output and actual output is closed across the Australian market is still what drives PV Lab. She says she and McIntosh think of themselves as the guardians of a vast virtual power plant in which every per cent gained represents a significant figure.

She says the REIF grant will allow PV Lab to assure more people “that they’re building something that will last, and they can have confidence that it’s not going to end up on a tip in a couple of years”.

This article was amended on 21/9/2020 to clarify that sample modules were tested for more than 2 GW of solar installations – rather than 2 GW of modules in total. 

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