This month's cover story takes an in-depth look at module testing and its role in product reliability – an important aspect of project performance. But even the most durable, trustworthy module in the world is rendered useless in the field by a downed inverter.
Inverter maintenance, repairs and other after-sales services constitute a crucial – and rapidly growing – business. In fact, a new report from IHS predicts that the solar inverter after-sales service market will more than double by 2017 as the utility-scale solar segment expands.
‘In 2012, 26 percent of high-power three-phase inverters were sold with a service plan attached, and this is forecast to increase to 34 percent by 2017,’ IHS' analysts wrote.
‘In many cases, banks and finance providers will specify that inverter service plans are required as a condition of the loan in order to ensure that PV installations operate efficiently and that inverter downtime is minimized,’ they added.
The popularity of service plans is expected to provide not only a nice revenue stream for inverter manufacturers (many of which are seeing their hardware profits shrink right now), but also increased comfort to financiers and developers.
A win-win, right? But as the PV inverter after-sales market grows to the tune of $1.7 billion over the next four years (per IHS' projections), what remains unclear is what happens to the inverters – and whatever service plan is attached – when the inverter manufacturer disappears.
This alarming situation is more than hypothetical: Last month, Boston-based inverter manufacturer Satcon – whose website still touts the company as the No. 1 utility-scale and commercial-scale solar inverter supplier in North America – filed for liquidation.
This sad final chapter in Satcon's history follows its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, announced last fall, and subsequent failure to find a buyer in time. Initially, Satcon had pledged to continue honoring warranties and providing post-sales service and support during its bankruptcy ordeal, thanks to court approval. But now that the company's assets are being sold off piecemeal, system owners are now reportedly left out in the cold.
One project integrator with several installed Satcon systems told me that some former Satcon employees had begun creating an offshoot company to provide troubleshooting and repairs for the thousands of existing projects in the company's fleet, but it would be a while before the new organization is ready for business.
Company failures will continue to be a part of this maturing industry, and they will likely include more inverter manufacturers. What kind of plan can be put in place to protect existing solar projects under the worst-case scenario?
This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue of Solar Industry.
Editor's Note: To submit your own contribution to Viewpoints, email Jessica Lillian at email@example.com.