Solar ‘farm’ components are starting to fail after only 10 to 15 years

A recent article in Utility Dive describes a growing problem at solar facilities reaching the middle of their useful 25-year lives: the inverters used to convert the current of electricity generated from the panels to be compatible with the greater grid are wearing out after only 10 to 15 years, and most of the manufacturers of these inverters, who were supposed to maintain and guarantee their performance over time, have gone out of business.

According to the article:

“These [solar] projects were designed for 20-25 year lifespans, and it’s a well-known fact that the first and second generation inverters have a 15-year average lifespan,” said Daniel Liu, who heads research on asset performance benchmarking, cost analysis and valuations at Wood Mackenzie. Like it or not, he said, “the market is going to have to repair a lot of inverters over the next ten years.”

Wood Mackenzie estimates that 23 gigawatts, or 37 percent of the solar installed in the United States as of 2021, will approach the 15-year mark within the next five years, meaning there will soon be a substantial need to retrofit solar facilities.

The article states replacing so many inverters, along with other equipment such as broken panels and fixing wiring, could tax a solar supply chain that has been taxed due to tariffs on China due to unfair business practices and the use of enslaved Muslim Uighurs in the factories that make polysilicon in Xinjiang province in Western China.

But this emergence of what could become the solar equivalent of repowering aging generating units could tax aspects of the industry’s already strained supply chain, and experts at the tail end of that chain say it could be challenging to dispose of the panels that may be removed and replaced during these inverter-inspired upgrades.

It isn’t just inverter failures driving the retrofitting of solar facilities halfway through their useful lifetimes. Repowering is also an increasingly popular option when existing modules are damaged by severe weather, which has grown more frequent, according to the Utility Dive article.

Replacing old panels with new panels raises another question: where do the old panels go? Some of them are still usable and are refurbished and reused at other sites, but the demand for used panels has fallen recently, resulting in more panels ending up in landfills because the cost of breaking panels into their component parts is greater than the value of the materials they contain.

This article has important implications for both the economic and environmental costs of solar facilities. If the inverters only last for 10 or 15 years, then the cost of the solar facilities increases, and so does their environmental impact.