EERE Success Story—Putting Solar Panels to the Test

October 29, 2015

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This solar photovoltaic (PV) array is being tested in hot, humid weather at the Cocoa, Florida Regional Test Center.

This solar photovoltaic (PV) array is being tested in hot, humid weather at the Cocoa, Florida Regional Test Center.

Mother Nature can be unpredictable. Sometimes she sends hail; other times, damaging winds; and if you live in a cold climate, she loves to send snow in the winter. When you choose to install solar panels on your rooftop, how do you know if they will hold up in severe weather?

Enter the Regional Test Center (RTC) program, established by the SunShot Initiative and managed by Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). The RTC program, which is funded by a $12 million award, created five sites in strategically-selected locations with diverse climates: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cocoa, Florida; Golden, Colorado; Henderson, Nevada; and Williston, Vermont. Each location represents a range of irradiance, temperature, and precipitation conditions.

Sandia and NREL currently collaborate with 20 industry partners, ranging from start-ups to multinational corporations, to measure the performance of their new photovoltaic (PV) technologies at each of the five locations. The RTC program has established a comprehensive data collection infrastructure and is customized to meet the needs of each industry partner, typically involving a three- to five-year field study. Data collection and analysis activities are underway on multiple PV systems at each RTC site, currently representing more than 300 kilowatts (kW) of installed PV capacity, with hundreds of kW more in the pipeline.

The rigorous testing performed in data collection validates module performance and identifies ways to improve quality. It’s important data for the U.S. solar industry because it helps speed up the commercialization of innovative products and build investor confidence, allowing U.S. companies to satisfy customer needs for affordability, efficiency, and reliability.

“We value the federally-funded Regional Test Center program for its support of manufacturers as they strive to provide exactly the renewable energy products that consumers want,” said Mukesh Dulani, U.S. president of SolarWorld. “We look forward to applying the resulting data and analysis in our factories in Oregon.”

Chet Farris, president and CEO of Stion, agrees.

“As a company committed to the U.S.'s ability to compete globally through innovative technology and streamlined processes, Stion is excited to work with Sandia and the DOE to monitor performance of its U.S.-made high-efficiency framed and frameless CIGS thin-film PV modules in a variety of climates,” Farris said.

This partnership with the national labs is helping U.S. companies carve out an advantage in the increasingly aggressive PV market space. The RTC program and technical support provided by the national labs helped them to improve performance and bankability for their products, which will ultimately benefit the U.S. solar energy industry and consumers alike.

The SunShot Initiative recently issued a Request for Information to gain insights into the degradation rates and service lifetimes of PV modules. The Department of Energy is also currently looking to transition the RTC site in Aurora, Colorado to external management. 

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) success stories highlight the positive impact of its work with businesses, industry partners, universities, research labs, and other entities.