Modular installation structure is an important pillar of any solar photovoltaic (PV) energy project. The high-quality installation structure of ground or roof solar projects not only helps to maintain the optimal power generation, but also ensures safe operation. Because these structures need to withstand the weight of solar panels, high wind speed and different temperatures. Recently, however, India's radical low-price bidding, which sacrifices quality to reduce costs, has damaged the installation structure, potentially negatively affecting hundreds of solar projects that should last 25 years in any weather.
This year, there have been many cases in Orissa, India, where Hurricane Fani damaged roofs and ground-mounted solar projects. Similar incidents were reported in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Unlike other devices deployed in solar projects, such as modules, inverters and cables, module installation structures need to be customized according to the terrain of the land, module design and climate of the area. According to the installation structure supplier, these accounts for between 3% and 5% of the total cost of solar energy projects, which is a key part of system balance (BoS).
"There is widespread concern in the industry that several companies have compromised on module quality, which could lead to structural collapse and negative perceptions of consumer and investor investment in solar projects. EPC and developers are pressing module suppliers to denounce their inadequate supply, while in turn accusing government agencies of setting price limits and reducing costs that they have to do, "said Raj Prabhu, CEO of Mercom Capital Group, a clean energy research institute.
Considering the service life of solar energy projects, the installation structure should also have excellent conductivity and thermal conductivity, and in addition to corrosion resistance and durability, it should also have different bearing capacity.
"There are many challenges in installing solar projects," said an executive at a large solar developer. Land remains a major constraint for developers and structural manufacturers, as the design of installation structures depends on the type of soil. Infrastructure is common for ground installation projects, but it depends on local climate, module size and array tilt. In addition, the efficiency of solar projects depends on the installation structure, because the ground installation system provides a better tilt than the roof project. Therefore, it is very important for solar energy projects to choose the appropriate installation structure.
However, due to the fierce competition in the industry, installation structure suppliers feel pressure. Through interaction with industry stakeholders, Mercom found that some developers were cutting corners on these structures. For example, the standard thickness of the structure ranges from 2 mm to 3 mm, but now the installation supplier is promoting the manufacture of structures with thickness less than 1 mm and tensile strength of 350 (MPa).
In addition, EPC contractors have found it difficult to maintain the quality of solar projects, because structural corrosion can affect power generation, which is the result of reducing quality while reducing costs.
Basant Jain, chief executive of Mahindra Susten, talked about the increasing pressure on suppliers of installation structures to reduce costs. "The current downward trend in tax rates has led to a price war for BoS costs. Because the installation structure is the main part of the BoS, the pressure to reduce costs is considered the highest.
In addition, in elaborating on the importance of high-quality installation structures, Jain said, "During the 25-year design life of a project, a structure has undergone many dynamic loading cycles. Wind is the main cause of failure of module installation structure. It is very important to consider all possible worst case in design. In addition, due to exposure to repeated rainfall and humid weather, poor material quality will make it vulnerable to accelerated corrosion, resulting in failure to operate in accordance with the design life.
Other EPC companies have similar views on the quality degradation of solar power plants caused by increased competition among developers. Aparna Ravikumar, a marketing engineer at Enerpark, a solar EPC company, said: "The pressure of developers to win a bid at a low price will eventually lead not only to a decline in the quality of BOS, but also to a decline in the quality of the entire plant, including modules and inverters. Although price pressures have led to some innovative solutions to some extent, the overall impact is that the quality of the factory is greatly affected.
"Professional design practice and rigorous installation structure testing should not be neglected. The design considers plant life and environmental factors as well as best engineering practices (such as wind speed, wind tunnel testing, life cycle testing of components used), the use and adequate testing of new materials, better procurement, quality monitoring of raw materials, and ensuring the correct use of products. These are to ensure the procurement of high-quality installation structures and to ensure the correct use of products. An important part of the installation, "Ravikumar added.
Harshal Akhouri, co-founder and director of Strolar Mounting System, an installation structure supplier, said, "Since 2008, India's steel industry has been under pressure because of falling steel prices and fierce competition. To solve this problem, steel companies have tried to reduce costs to match pricing, and so has the solar industry. Although economies of scale can negotiate the price of modules, inverters and cables by ordering large quantities, they cannot do so when installing systems. Each project is designed differently, which makes mass production difficult. In order to cope with fierce competition and thin profits, the quality of steel is affected. It can be the grade or thickness of steel, or even the form of coating thickness to reduce costs, which may ultimately damage the long-term durability in harsh weather conditions. A typical example is Punjab, Rajasthan and now Orissa. Although modules, inverters and cables already have test equipment and approval specifications before they enter the market, unfortunately, there is no regulatory body applicable to the installation system.
A drowning man will clutch at a straw
In order to solve the current problems, anti-dumping cases have recently been brought against module installation structural components, including aluminium and galvanized flat products from China, Korea and Vietnam. The National Solar Energy Federation of India (NSEFI) recently wrote to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) expressing concern about the imposition of anti-dumping duties on aluminium and galvanized flat products.
The General Administration of Trade Relief (DGTR) is about to release preliminary findings on the matter. According to NSEFI, about 49 gigawatts of solar energy projects are at different stages of development, and they will need up to 1,500,000 tons of aluminium and galvanized flat products in the next 18 months.
NSEFI believes that if tariffs are imposed, developers of solar photovoltaic projects will propose tax rate adjustments in accordance with the "legal change" clause. The whole negotiation process may take a long time and have a negative impact on the project pipeline and construction schedule of the whole country. If an anti-dumping duty is imposed on the installation structure, it may lead to an increase in the cost of components and bring further pressure to the project.
"Although suppliers face price pressures, resulting in quality damage, once an anti-dumping case occurs, it may cause supply problems. Unless regulators are cautious enough, "Prabhu added.
The solar industry needs to focus on establishing best practices for testing and certification of installed structural products prior to deployment. The quality of raw materials used in these structures is also key to durability. Proper selection and design of structural systems for installation are essential for optimum performance of solar projects, especially in the Indian market.
"Unless the industry responds quickly and corrects itself, we will see the implementation of unnecessary laws and regulations, which further increases the burden on the industry. If the installation structure starts to fail, the insurance costs will rise, and even the potential risks will increase further, "Prabhu said.
According to Mercom's India Solar Energy Market Report of 2019, by the end of 2018, there were more than 60 solar installation structure suppliers in the Indian market. The top 10 installation structure Suppliers account for 65% of the market share, while the other 50 Suppliers account for the remaining 35%.