Solar PV Quality Concerns in Africa

The need for a strong quality control, assurance and standards regime across the PV value chain in Africa is getting more critical. The associated costs or losses from poor quality assurance regimes in a given market have visible as well as hidden cost components. The visible costs include rising costs of inspection for projects, plants and rooftops, it also includes cost of reworks, losses from rejects and product scraping, as well as, costs related to product warranty services.

Solar Modules Quality Control

As new markets open and solar power awareness grow; commercial aspects of market growth, should be tightly coupled to strong technical compliance and quality assurance frameworks.

It hurts the market in the long run, if stakeholder – consumers, developers, financiers and regulators – have no reliable framework or standards for assessing the quality of solar PV systems and related components. The impacts are already visible in several markets in the form of consumer mistrusts and lower bankability.

While the solar PV quality management system is still evolving in different regions of the world, Africa may be lagging behind. Undocumented, fragmented and poorly enforced quality assurance regimes will eventually slow down the growth and scale of PV products adoption in the market.

Earlier in April 2018, India implemented a Quality Control Order for PV modules. Compliance to this order requires “manufactures of PV systems to submit samples to authorized labs for testing and to give a self-certification that the module adheres to the prescribed standards”. India has already been hurt by rampant low-quality PV modules and is now deploying mechanisms to reduce the negative market impacts.

African countries should do so before it gets critical. While there are several dimensions to the PV quality conversations, minimum safety and performance standards for PV modules provide a necessary framework for optimizing the solar off-grid and rooftop potential in Africa. Such standards allow for convenient harmonization across distinct markets, deliver direct consumer benefits and offer an essential tool for objectively evaluating PV-related investments (the technical dimension to bankability assessments).

Few countries in Africa have built a strong “safety and performance standards” regime. It appears that the widely reported “low consumer confidence” in solar PV modules, inverters and related components, arguably stems from the market conditions made possible by the absence of robust quality assurance and performance standards.

Since qualitative standard such as IEC 61215 is judged to be insufficient (and not originally intended) to provide longer span risk assurances that reaches into the 25 years life span of PV modules; the adoption of tested and comprehensive quality assurance mechanisms is essential throughout the PV lifecycle. It follows that developers who work on smaller projects such as mini grids and rooftops will need to comply with some kind of quality regulatory provisions; these quality requirements should be crafted for protecting the interest of consumers and investors and for protecting the entire market.

Solar PV Quality Conerns in Africa
The Dassiefontein Road Stall with solar panels on its roof, next to the N2-Road between Caledon and Botrivier in the Western Cape Province of South Africa

In parts of the world where this quality compliance gap has been plugged, more detailed requirements could even be in place. Rooftop solar, for example, should comply with some aspects of Building Codes for optimum performance and safety. This is in addition to any other existing layer of compliance that is exclusive to the solar power industry and installation works. But building codes are poorly developed in Africa and enforcement frameworks are largely absent. So it will be necessary for the region’s rapidly expanding off-grid/rooftop solar markets to embrace good quality assurance systems.

In California for example, a rating and compliance standard for solar equipment and components established in 2007, now serves as a tool used by many other states within the United States, as well as, several utilities and project developers. Under that regime, manufacturers of PV modules and inverters are required to provide 10 years warranty to protect consumers.

From the African market perspective, since product warranty durations are not necessarily enforced by law in some countries, manufactures and solar product merchants are free to provide skeletal warranty offerings to helpless consumers. This visible absence of a strong regime on quality assurance in Africa, removes the necessary empowerment that consumers need to demand reasonable quality in PV products. The fact that a good portion of the PV systems used in Africa are imported, also bring to fore the technical debate on location-specific (geography) patterns of PV failure/degeneration and how Africa’s irradiance and environment specifically contributes to PV yield, failure and ultimately the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE).

These are core considerations for funding PV projects and for attaining any level of desired project de-risking. The International PV quality Assurance Taskforce (PVQAT) is leading global efforts to craft quality and reliable standards for solar technologies. They provide standards that allow stakeholders to evaluate PV performance and even analyse the impact of local weather. Their standards and recommendations should be mainstreamed in African solar markets, through appropriate legislations.

At the moment Africa is not - but should be - actively involved in the global efforts concerning quality control and assurance for solar PVs. Beyond that Africa should see to the prompt domestication of best quality practices in home markets. comment↓

SEE ALSO:   Solarification of Deserts: the Case of Africa’s Sahara

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