Solar panels can be left exposed to the elements for decades and will withstand all that nature has to offer.
Despite the challenges of working outside, many panels come with warranties of 25 years. Manufacturers also state that the equipment can continue to operate at a high level for up to 30-40 years.
I become skeptical when I see numbers such as these. Solar panels are made out of silicon, which is brittle and easily cracks. The main protection they have is a thin sheet tempered glass.
Laura Schelhas from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden (Colorado) spoke to me to help me understand why panel manufacturers can confidently give decades-long guarantees. She is a chemist, and she leads a research project that spans several national labs and solar panel producers. It aims to understand why panels sometimes fail and how to make them last for longer.
The Durable Materials Consortium (or DuraMAT) was what caught my attention. This video shows scientists trying to break solar panels. They walk on them, jump on them, twist brittle silicon sheets until the panels shatter.
She explained that the hands-on work of breaking stuff was not typical at the office. Her team’s research has more to do with using modeling methods to come up with ways to simulate decades of weather exposure in much shorter periods of time. The testing is often done in controlled chambers that allow researchers to set temperatures, moisture, and temperature, as well as use of mechanical instruments to poke, shake, and shake the panels.
Panels can become damaged or corroded due to corrosion of the metal connecting the parts and accumulation of cracks within silicon, the material that absorbs light.
Here’s our interview, edited for clarity and length:
What would you say if you were a host at a backyard barbecue and were explaining the program’s purpose?
I would say that the main goal of the program is to ensure that solar panels—we call them solar modules—can last for a really long time. What we’re really pushing to do is make sure that when you buy a solar module it can last 30 years, even up to 50 years. So we’re making sure that all of the stuff that goes into the super complicated package can last. And so it’s really trying to understand why things fall apart, and what we can do to kind of prevent that from happening.
I would imagine that there’s probably a mix of long-term research and then some more hands-on work.
Part of our work is in data and data management data analytics. And then we have research in modeling, asking questions like, ’Can we use models to understand failure and even predict the lifetime of materials?’ That predicting is really, really hard, and something that we’re starting to focus on a lot.
Another thing we’re doing is accelerated testing in an intelligent way. So, if a product is meant to last for 30 years, you can’t put something new outside and wait for 30 years to determine whether or not it’s going to be a durable product. We often turn to accelerated testing to help us speed up our time.
One thing that gets my attention is this idea of panels being made so durable that they can potentially last 50 years. With new panels becoming more efficient every year, why would anyone want to keep the same panels for 50+ years? Wouldn’t it make sense to replace them sooner than that?‘
Technology improvement and technology that lasts forever are two different things. Some of our colleagues from NREL have done some analysis in this area. They looked at how long panels should last at their current efficiency and cost-effectiveness. It is estimated that the number will be around 30 years. These things can change depending on the cost of materials or efficiency. I think for me, what I think about is, we’re in a situation right now where we need to be deploying a lot of modules in order to meet clean energy goals. So, while the idea of replacing to increase efficiency is great, we must also consider the labor and carbon costs of making these modules.
Is the durability of solar panels improving enough to deal with the increases we’re seeing in harsh weather and extreme heat?
While there are some improvements, there are always new questions. One trend in the industry is the transition from a polymer back sheet material and a glass front to a glass back and glass front. Modules are evolving from monofacial to what they call bifacial. In monofacial, you’ve just got light from the front. And so it didn’t matter what was on the back. But in bifacial cells, you’re collecting light also on the back of the cell, to boost efficiencies. To do that, light must be able to pass through. A transparent polymer backing material is possible, but it’s easiest to just stick glass on the back. Once you do that, now, you potentially introduce new degradation mechanisms and modes that we haven’t seen before. And there’s a lot of work going into exploring that. Those are kinds of interesting questions that we’ll continue to explore over the next few years.
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What do you think the best number to use for the average lifetime of a solar panel’s? What warranty does the manufacturer offer?
I consider warranty numbers to be the most telling. This is because companies that have invested money in the game believe the module will last for that long. Warranty numbers are typically between 30- and 35 years.
I think modules can last up to 30 year. That’s all with the caveat that manufacturing processes are controlled well, and you’re getting a quality product.
You can also find other stories about the energy transition in this week’s news:
A Start-Up is Designed to Reduce Fossil Fuel Reliance.Quaise Energy is a spinoff of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology project. It plans to build a business that will drill up to 12 miles in the earth to tap into vast geothermal energy resources. David Abel reports that the company could drill as deep as 12 miles using a laser that can cut through granite and basalt. The Boston Globe. The deep holes would act like a conduit for steam from rising to the surface to turn a turbine into electricity. “By drilling deeper, hotter, and faster than ever before possible, Quaise aspires to provide abundant and reliable clean energy for all humanity,” said Carlos Araque, a co-founder.
Hydrogen Could Be Part of the Answer for Clean Energy—or Gas Industry Greenwashing: SoCal Gas is proposing the build what it says would be the country’s largest “green hydrogen” energy system, part of the gas industry’s push to develop new assets that they say could be an essential part of the transition away from fossil fuels. But environmentalists have long viewed the gas industry’s embrace of hydrogen as more greenwashing than a workable solution for replacing natural gas, as Sammy Roth reports for The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles officials aren’t sure what to think of green hydrogen, which is made by using renewable energy to create hydrogen. “Anybody who says green hydrogen is going to work for sure doesn’t yet know what they’re talking about,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Anybody who says green hydrogen won’t work for sure doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Illinois Coal-Fired Power Plants Increased Emissions Spwing Production Last year Illinois passed a landmark clean energy law in 2021, which will force the closing of most of the state’s coal-fired power plants by 2030. Also in 2021, Illinois coal-fired plants increased their electricity output by 39 percent, the largest percentage increase of any of the country’s top 10 coal-burning states, as Brett Chase of the Chicago Sun-TimesLast week, I reported. The increased use of Illinois coal plant was due to several factors. These include the rebound from low electricity demand in 2020 because of pandemic lockdowns and a rise in natural gas prices for 2021. Whatever the reason, the rise in coal-fired electricity and its associated increase in emissions is bad for the environment and human health. It also shows some of what the clean energy law is fighting against, which is that market forces sometimes lead to increases in demand for coal-fired electricity, even if that’s not good for the public.
What happens to used solar panels? The Department of Energy Wants To Know:The Department of Energy released an action plan that will help the United States create a system to recycle solar panels. The department’s Solar Energy Technologies Office announced a new target to get the costs of recycling solar panels down to about $3 per panel by 2030, which the office said would make the practice economically viable for the first time, as David Iaconangelo reports for E&E News.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to email@example.com.
Source: Inside Climate News