A new survey of more than 400 buyers of PV inverters has revealed a growing acceptance of Chinese products, with close to 30% of respondents indicating the inverters were of acceptable quality. However, the survey – which was conducted by IMS Research in the fourth quarter of 2011 – also revealed that customers sought increased reliability, functionality and yields, with more than half prepared to pay a premium for a 1% yield gain.
The report revealed a number of interesting trends for PV inverters, as well as reasons for buyers' choice of supplier and product. For instance, there was very strong brand preference for Western suppliers of inverters – with SMA Solar Technology confirmed as the clear leader.
But many customers also indicated that they trusted Chinese brands, too, with customers in Italy and the U.K. being the most accepting. Despite this new level of acceptance, the survey also found that most customers still prefer Western inverter suppliers and had several demands for better products.
‘The most important product feature for string inverters was having more [maximum power point tracking] channels and a wider [maximum power point] range,’ says Cormac Gilligan, a market analyst at IMS Research and co-author of the report. Although central inverter customers also want these features, they see improved system monitoring and fault detection as more important, Gilligan adds.
The ongoing trend of building large installations using three-phase string inverters was also evident from the survey. More than 70% of respondents indicated they would consider using a string inverter in PV systems over 750 kW in size. In fact, more than 30% said they would use string inverters to build megawatt-sized projects.
Nearly 70% of customers wanted monitoring diagnostics right down to the string level, with 15% wanting to monitor each panel individually, according to the report. This trend appears to show a great opportunity for panel-level electronics.
‘Despite only being used in one percent of installations last year, more than 10 percent of customers are intending to use micro-inverters for some of their projects in the next 12 to 24 months, with an even greater number wanting to use DC-DC power optimizers,’ says Ash Sharma, senior research director at IMS Research.
Conversely, the survey also found that many customers would not use micro-inverters due to their higher costs – and because they remain a new and still unproven technology.
Although customers were expecting better-performing inverter products in the future, with more features and higher efficiencies, the majority of respondents also expected prices to fall over the next three years, with most predicting a reduction of between 20% and 30%.
Furthermore, many customers indicated that they would be willing to pay for higher yields, but nearly all said they expected their inverters to have more features and higher quality for lower prices.
The survey results indicated that this apparent contradiction probably occurred due to the way customers determine their preferred inverter price.
‘Nearly half of all customers said that they determined their inverter price based on their overall system budget,’ notes Gilligan. ‘With module and system prices falling rapidly, this inherently puts more pressure on inverter prices to fall, too.’
Survey respondents included several hundred buyers of PV inverters, such as installers, distributors, wholesalers, integrators, and engineering, procurement and construction contractors. The survey focused on respondents' purchasing habits when selecting an inverter and a vendor.