Solar consumer advisory

I had been planning to write a profile of a friend from high school who was one of the few other Filipinas in my grade (there were three of us out of a class of over 600). This will have to wait until next week because I’ve come across some alarming news.

Because of my affiliation with a solar company based out of the United States, I often find myself in conversation with Philippine-based players in the industry. I understand that some consumers are coming across solar panels that are selling for twenty-five cents per watt. These panels have names that are not familiar to me and are coming out of manufacturers in China and Taiwan. If readers in the Philippines and friends of readers in the Philippines are coming across panels like these, do not purchase these panels. A reasonably low price for the consumer market in the Philippines would be $0.40 to $0.45 per watt, not $0.25. Lower prices can be achieved at higher volumes. Purchasing ultra-cheap panels, though tempting, will sacrifice the long term performance of the system.

I feel compelled to write about this because solar is a very promising solution, especially for the Philippines. Small islands stand to install a system once and enjoy electricity for decades without the need to purchase fuel (and all the attendant hassles that go with transporting and consuming a fossil fuel). But I’m concerned that the problems presented by low quality panels may obscure the benefits of a well-engineered solar photovoltaic solution. The problem with low quality panels is that performance may degrade much faster than better panels. I have seen old versions of photovoltaics dangling from wires generating electricity in trickles. This can come from shoddy lamination or low quality silicon or low quality cells. It only takes a few of these examples to ruin a good story.

Here is a list of high quality brands of solar panels: Trina Solar, Canadian Solar, First Solar, SunPower, LG, and Panasonic. There are other brands, including one with which I am affiliated that I am leaving out to maintain credibility, but this is a good go-to list. I have it on good authority that Trina Solar and Canadian Solar are available in the Philippines. I have also gleaned a bias from some people in the Philippines for US-made product. This is no longer a good rule of thumb, especially in the solar industry which has priced out expensive manufacturing workforces like the US. SolarWorld, for example, is not a superior brand to Trina Solar, for example.

Electricity prices to the end consumer are still shockingly high. Retail customers of the largest distribution utility are still paying something like $0.16 US per kWh while customers of the second largest distribution utility (in Cebu) are shelling out $0.20 US per kWh on average. These are better than peaking prices in California but far more expensive than most other states in the US. It is surprising, therefore, that solar has not been more vociferously adopted. Part of this may be the sizable up front cost (which shrinks daily) and part of it may be due to a lack of installation resources. All in, I am hearing that costs for a fully installed solar system has fallen below $2 per watt peak. This should be economic motivation enough to avoid the hefty costs charged by the utility.

As this adoption happens, as it should, just please beware. Not all panels are made alike. Some really are better than others. Check your brands; check your suppliers. Don’t fall for the heavily discounted product that sounds too good to be true.