At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, teams of scientists and researchers spend large parts of their day jumping on, twisting, smashing, and generally coming up with various ways of breaking solar panels.
It’s not malice, it’s not incompetence. It’s not even the latest stress release fad. Nope, it’s research! The goal is to understand how solar panels endure natural elements, how they fail, and how the team can prevent common types of failure.
Many solar providers give very lengthy guarantees on the longevity of their panels. The NREL puts that to the test. They want to ensure that the 30-to-50-year guarantee that providers mention is accurate.
Chemist and project leader Laura Schelhas said in an interview with Inside Climate News:
“We have aspects of what we do that is in data and data handling 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. A lot of times, we turn to accelerated testing, to kind of be our time machine for us.”
What helpful things are we learning from broken solar panels?
The work at the NREL is important for figuring out common and fixable flaws in solar panels. It also explores necessary issues in scaling solar energy to meet societal goals in reducing carbon emissions. It’s important to understand the threshold of replacement vs. longevity. While replacing old panels with new more efficient ones might make sense in some cases, it’s also important to consider the cost and materials involved in installing new panels. Testing and understanding the resiliency and breaking points in solar panels gives us a heads up on what to look out for and to prepare fixes for the most common issues.
It’s also good for the consumer, establishing base-line knowledge of a solar panel’s typical lifespan.