The long read: Implementing standards

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India’s solar growth has been spectacular, quickly propelling it to the status of a solar superpower. The country plans to put more than 250 GW of solar into its generation pipeline in the next 10 years.

A potential antagonist in this shining story line could be ‘quality,’ or rather the lack of it. If India is to achieve its solar goals, it is imperative that components used to construct this huge infrastructure of green energy are of top-notch quality and exceptionally reliable in all conditions during the entire working life of 25 years or more.

“Indian project developers rely on ‘self-defined’ quality criteria to import more than 90% of modules for the domestic industry,” says Ivan Saha, CTO at Vikram Solar. “Since modules contribute to more than 55% of the capex required to build a solar plant, the risk associated with poor module quality is therefore significant – especially so, as the outflow in forex [foreign exchange] due to module import is several billion dollars every year.”

With more than 10 GW per year in installations, and some of the most competitive tariffs in the world, a marginal drop in performance or quality related issues can be catastrophic in the context of projects in India.

Government initiatives

Gangadhara Rao, of Ananyavijaya Consultancy says that a number of policy guidelines have been handed down from government agencies regarding PV quality. In more detail, India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has established the following guidelines:

  • lab policy for testing, standardization, and certification for the RE Sector;
  • guidelines to conduct solar PV module testing (for quality and fire safety aspects) in test labs; and
  • Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) registration for solar equipment.

As a result of this, all the modules supplied in India should be BIS certified as of April 1, 2019. The three major aspects to be adhered to by the PV module manufacturers are: mandatory in-country testing of PV modules by a laboratory recognized by BIS, which will also be subject to regular audit by the BIS; registration with the BIS, where they will be given a unique number for identification; and a surveillance mechanism, whereby panels can be tested at random from the manufacturing sites to check whether they comply with BIS requirements.

Challenges remain

According to Vikram Solar’s Saha, while BIS certification is an honest attempt to mitigate the risks associated with poor quality, there are several reasons why this particular objective is currently not being met.

First, the BIS guidelines are a set of test protocols that are broadly similar to the International Electrotechnical Commission testing requirements. The sample size, test criteria, and sequence are exactly the same. Thus, manufacturers selling modules in India have to go through the same test twice, once for IEC type testing and second for BIS testing. Completion of these tests typically takes three months.

Second, there is an acute lack of testing facilities within the country, which is leading to long queues of manufacturers to get certification. Currently, there are four testing facilities in India: TÜV, UL, National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE), and Hi Physix.

Third, Indian geographical and climatic conditions vary greatly from north to south, and from east to west. While the north is dry and hot, conditions in the south and east are hot and humid. The failure patterns of modules vary according to these climatic conditions. Ideally, BIS certification should include additional tests over IEC type testing that qualify modules for India-specific climatic conditions.

Finally, the cost of BIS certification for every combination of bill of materials (BOM) is INR 2 million ($29,000). The whole process of BIS certification for at least one product type with each BOM leads to an inordinately high certification cost, which lies beyond the reach of many manufacturers.

The way forward

According to Saha, what India needs immediately is a strong government effort to drive quality in a more holistic manner, rather than blindly following the BIS certification route. Development of new standards for module testing for India-specific climate conditions is the need of the hour.

“Close monitoring of quality control processes on the shop floor in the Indian domestic manufacturer site is an assured way to confirm 100% quality. Specific quality plans for mass manufacturing need to be followed and deployed on shop floors in order to make this happen,” says Saha.

“Finally, a sure way to support the domestic solar manufacturing industry is to develop a robust and sustainable domestic supply chain to provide quality materials for module manufacturing at competitive rates.” Uma Gupta

Issues other than module quality

Anmol Singh Jaggi, founder of Gensol Group shares his opinion that critical issues are witnessed during various development phases of solar PV projects – pre-bidding, planning, design, construction, and commissioning – which may impact the overall project quality.

“There is ambiguity from the initial phase (pre-bid phase) itself, which indirectly affects project quality at later stages. Lack of detailed site assessment for solar installation leads to bid cancellation as sites are sometimes found to be unfeasible during later project development stages. Feasibility assessment mostly changes at the time of execution, leading to multiple technical revisions. Also, survey reports – mostly contour reports, soiling reports, hydrology reports, and bathymetric reports – are unavailable during project execution. Selection of a given meteorological database can change the estimated energy figures, leading to big deviations from actual figures,” highlights Gensol founder.

Subsequently, “there are project delays (owing to delays in land acquisition, change in technology, and seeking clearances from authorities) and cost overruns due to scope creep. Poor field investigation, bad cost estimates, lack of experience, inadequate project formulation/feasibility analysis, and poor project appraisal lead to incorrect investment decisions,” Jaggi adds.

During execution phase, challenges range from drainage and stability of structural support to poor project management. Most plants lack systematic drainage systems, which leads to water logging.

Equipment such as control panels, inverters, and switchgears is designed to reduce infrastructure cost, which reduces the equipment’s life expectancy under extreme climatic conditions.

Further, to optimize the project cost, the quality of material is compromised. Currently, low-carbon mild steel dominates the market, which comes with a five year warranty. Thereafter, rusting becomes a major cause of project degradation. Improper project monitoring without any field quality checklist results in poor performance. There is no proper storage for procured material at site, which leads to product degradation.

Post execution, wet (water-based) cleaning is common for solar panels. However, the cleaning methodology (dry cleaning, robotic cleaning) must be selected based on the region. Cleaning should be done either before 9:00 a.m. or after 4:30 p.m. to avoid loss during peak hours and damage to the equipment.

Equipment such as inverter and transformer come with a limited warranty of five years, the extension of which adds extra cost.