By Ron Young
—Government leaders and bankers in China have helped fuel a huge glut of solar panels by supporting the industry with incentives and subsidies even when it was apparent that companies were losing money. Burgeoning growth of the Chinese solar industry has been characterized as a mad dash for easy money. As a result, the price of solar panels has seen a precipitous drop over the last few years. For homeowners this has been mostly a good opportunity in the short term. The downside is that many established solar companies worldwide have been unable to compete with cheap Chinese labour and industry subsidies and have folded their tents. While some companies have simply gone out of business, other companies have closed their solar divisions. Now, in a twist of irony, recent news tells us that even China’s Suntech, the largest solar panel producer in the world, recently declared bankruptcy.
European and North American governments have stated that China is dumping solar into their markets; dumping refers to what happens when factories produce too much product and are willing to sell it at prices below actual cost. The European Union plans to implement a huge duty on Chinese solar panels, which, at close to 50 per cent, will raise prices to a more profitable level for their homegrown manufacturers. North American interests are planning a similar strategy and in a counter move many Chinese producers are locating manufacturing facilities in other countries to try and circumvent the duties.
“China’s solar panel manufacturers, after producing at excess capacity and driving global prices down for the last few years, are now facing an uncertain future, at best, as demand plummets and the EU imposes a tariff on their products,” says an article in International Business Times.
What all this means for you and I as consumers of these products is that while we have been able to get solar at very low prices compared to just a few years ago, this Solargeddon has been taking its toll on a large number of established companies and the warranties that those companies provided have come into question. Solar panels boast the longest warranties of any electronic product at 20 to 25 years, but when the company no longer exists where do you go for warranty claims? Fortunately, well-made solar panels rarely have problems. Buying at today’s low prices, you have to consider that you are self-insuring or providing your own warranty because of the uncertainty of the marketplace. The caveat here is to make sure to buy a good quality product to start with and you are less likely to have problems. A solar panel is a relatively inert piece of equipment with no moving parts to fail, but the kinds of problems that can occur are electrical and what is known as delamination where moisture penetrates the panel and dramatically reduces its output or causes total failure.
Another unanswered question about solar panels is, “Where does the price go from here?” I have already seen increases in price from my suppliers from the spring to the summer and I expect that prices will continue to rise by as much as 30 per cent as the new duties kick in and the overstock inventory at manufacturers is eliminated.
Speaking of failure of electronic products, a number of my readers have experienced problems following the severe electrical storms we have had this summer. I know I’ve mentioned this subject in previous articles but it’s of enough importance that it bears repeating. When windstorms cause trees to fall across electrical lines, strong surges and brownouts can happen. When lightning strikes nearby it can cause inductive currents of electricity that travel in the ground and along conductive pathways such as towers and overhead or underground wires. These inductive currents will follow the path of least resistance, which often means copper plumbing pipes, electrical wires, and phone wires. Electronic components that are in many household appliances such as computers, TVs, and stereo receivers, have little or no protection from a sudden spike of electricity, even if they are turned off.
You can’t prevent damage from a direct lightning strike, but the aforementioned inductive currents that have been known to travel up to a mile through conductive material can damage microcircuits in electronics. In the last three months I have seen several inverters and a wind generator controller fail due to lightning with the cost for replacements in the thousands of dollars. It pays to take precautions that may prevent or minimize damage.
One of the most innovative companies in the renewable energy field has recently developed an effective surge protection device. The company’s surge and lightning arrestor can be easily installed whether you are on-grid or off-grid and is well worth the price. The other component of proper lightning protection is a good grounding connection to a plate or ground rod to your main service panel. I have seen a few variations on this over the years that will not work such as a piece of rebar hammered into the ground or a copper pipe. Neither of these things will maintain the integrity of connection necessary for a solid bond from your equipment ground to earth. A properly installed ground plate or rod will give diverted current from a surge or lightning a path to ground outside of your house.
If you have solar panels, a wind generator, or an electrical service in a shop or barn located 50’ to 100’ away from your surge protector and grounding system, they need to have their own protection. On my wind generator I have five ground plates, one on every guy wire cable and one on the base that gives me peace of mind when the lightning storms roll through.
Until next time, keep your thoughts all sunny!
Ron Young is a renewable energy professional that designs and sells and installs solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems. He operates the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ron Young 2014