‘Made in China’: How Country of Origin Affects Solar Components

by Solar Selections on October 19, 2011

One of the most hotly debated topics in any industry is quality control with regards to a product’s origin. From the stereotypes surrounding Italian sports cars and Egyptian cotton, entire industries have been affected by the consensus on these assumptions. The solar industry is not above such generalisations here in the UK, with Chinese, German, Korean and even supposedly British products flooding our market. This report aims to investigate the truth and fiction behind the ‘Made in’ branding of solar panels and inverters, and conclude how much weight these factors should hold in our decisions.

The Definition of ‘Country of Origin’

 

One of the first points to raise concerning this topic is that there are strict legal parameters for any form of manufacturing regarding the ‘Made in’ tag and what it entails. For a product to claim a Country of Origin (COO), it must adhere to the specific Rules of Origin that exist in that country and these vary. The World Trade Organisation website has a detailed analysis of this, found here. In addition, the European Union has it’s own set of guidelines. After reviewing these there are a couple of guidelines we can point out to help with the distinction of a product’s COO, or where it was assembled or partially developed. COO requires that:

  • The vast majority of the product has to have been assembled and manufactured in the COO;
  • The overall product changed state in the COO, meaning that some of its components may have arrived externally, but they were commissioned to a completed state in the COO.
For instance; it is not sufficient for a solar panel to have its cells manufactured, aligned and connected, electrical work wired and framing constructed in Country A and then be shipped to Country B to be screwed together and claim Country B as the COO. Often enough sales pitches will lead customers into believing this when it is not in any way the strict, legal and accountable truth.
Specific Example: There are accounts in the industry of ‘British made’ panels being available. To our sources, these claims are entirely untrue. No panel or inverter can legally claim to be currently made in England, or anywhere in the UK for that matter. If anyone in the industry has said this to you or a friend/family member, ensure you ask them for the legal certifications of their statements. You will most likely find that whilst the panel/inverter may be partially assembled here, it is in fact made elsewhere and such proof cannot be provided.

International Organisation for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission

Once we establish the true Country of Origin of a product, we can begin delving into the standards of quality that exist around the world. Luckily for us, there are two international accreditation bodies that every single panel and inverter must pass in order to be legally made commercially available in the UK. The International Organisation for Standardization (ISO)  is one such body, and it requires all solar components to pass set guidelines for safety in construction, durability and effectiveness in performance. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is responsible for the technical standards being adhered to, and work with the ISO to ensure a level playing field.

Now the issue then becomes, do panels from China possess less ISO or IEC accreditations than those from Germany or Japan? The answer is no. All panels and inverters from all countries MUST possess the relevant subgroup ISO and IEC specification to be legally sold and installed in the UK. These standards are listed here. There are no further awards that are awarded by these organisations and therefore no difference in the basic level of quality available. We can safely say that country of origin is having no impact upon international standard accreditation.

Points of Difference for Solar Component Origin

Panel Efficiency

Now if you are still unsure about what efficiency strictly means, you should read this article now. The reality is that some of the most efficient panels in the world come from China and the Phillipines through brands like Sunpower. Panel efficiency is directly related to space efficiency, and no relationship exists between a county of origin and the average space efficiency produced. A conclusion is that country of origin has entirely no affect upon panel efficiency.

Inverter Efficiency

Inverter efficiency and what it entails is covered in detail in this article found here. The short answer is that whilst the German made SMA inverters hold  40% market share of global inverter sales and their popular ‘TL’ models boasting 97% rates, the various efficiencies for solar inverters are comparable with other leading brands. Power One for instance, a US brand, reports on their Aurora One and Aurora Trio models figures of over 97%. As a guide, the majority of inverters are operating at 96% peak inverter efficiency at this stage, and anything below that is seen as being behind in development. The actual difference in your average residential system for a 2% difference in peak efficiency is negligible; amounts like £50 or so a year. It’s simply not worth drawing a huge line from these distinctions. Ultimately we must again derive that inverter efficiency is not directly correlated to country of manufacture.

Solar System Reliability

Another major aspect of panels and inverters that we must consider is reliability. A thorough and independent review into panel and inverter failures or excess losses in efficiency is unfortunately unavailable, so all that can be done is research into specific instances of failures and panel brands/country of origin. From what study we have done, there is no correlation that exists between the two aspects. In the rare incidents of panels failing or proving to be manufactured incorrectly the brands and countries have been an assortment of European and Asian. Unfortunately, no clear distinction other than this is available and we must say again, country of origin has no discernible or as yet measured impact on panel reliability.

Cost

We are all driven somewhat by the bottom dollar on quotes so this is an aspect that must be considered. Research into the current brands from Japan and Germany do reveal a price difference when compared with panels from China, Korea and India. The difference differs substantially depending on the company, but a general line can be seen between the two. Ultimately country of origin is having an impact on relative prices. Let’s look at why.

Justification for Price Differences based on Country of Origin

There are numerous factors that affect how pricing differs from installer to installer. The article found here is helpful as an insight into this. With regards to country of origin, there are further suggestions as to how this affects system pricing. One of the major aspects to this is the existing infrastructure for the solar industry in the country. Nations that have been producing solar components for decades will simply have more cost effective means of import and transport for materials. Whether it be the shipping lanes dedicated to silicon import needed for cell production or proximity of inverter manufacturing plants to semi-conductor sources; it all makes a difference in the cost per watt that components can be bought. The governments backing in training and research and development plays a major part of this, and such it depends on their focus for developing the industry along these lines.
China for instance has been the world’s most productive industry for solar panels for many years, and continues to have a majority stakehold in this industry through brands such as Suntech. Germany on the other hand dominates inverter manufacturing, with industry leading brands such as SMA producing more inverters than any other source.
It is through the continued government support of the industry structure and infrastructure that this trend continues. It does not have an impact on the quality of components being produced, with SMA and Suntech perfect examples of high quality, major players in their field.

Conclusion

There is very little evidence to support any claim that a solar components country of origin will affect it’s quality. Some specific examples of poorly and excellently performing brands do exist, but country of manufacture is not a common denominator. A Product and Price Comparison Summary from Solar Selections will reveal the different costs from installers in your region and the country of manufacture for their components. It is the closest the industry has to an independent summary of this correlation, and a very helpful guide to your options. Request one today and take your time with us to consider the best way forward for your project.

Written by Jarrah Harburn

jarrah@solarselections.co.uk

T: 020 7205 2267

© 2011 Solar Selections Pty Ltd

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