Solar modules: S-Energy offers service in Gangnam style

6/6/17, 11:00 AM -

The Korean solar panel manufacturer S-Energy is having a hard time coming clean about their production faults and remedying them in a timely manner.

A check on the roof shows hot spots in the solar modules.
A check on the roof shows hot spots in the solar modules.

At last, things are beginning to move: “I would like to inform you about our recent activities,” Ove Asmussen recently wrote in an e-mail to this publication. “At the affected installation in Leck, we are currently replacing all panels with new ones.” This undertaking was completed by the end of March and involved 205 kilowatts. 858 panels in total were replaced. And the e-mail further stated: “The panels that were delivered look to be in good order. It remains to be seen when Suncycle will have processed the panels and will be able to deliver them to the Nordstrand site.”

Nordstrand generates 240 kilowatts and is the second project that Asmussen is worried about. He is operating engineer at a large operating company which runs large warehouses and factories for the agricultural sector in northern Germany. In Nordstrand, about one thousand panels are affected. Now the panels that were exchanged in Leck are to be processed (repaired) by Suncycle and (together with 150 new ones) be remounted to the roof at Nordstrand.

A danger to people and valuables

Asmussen works for ATR Landhandel. At a certain point, the company equipped many of its roofs with PV, 13 installations totalling 4.8 megawatts and involving about 20,000 solar panels. These are managed by the subsidiary Arthra Solar. But some of these installations have been idle for months, indeed, were taken off the grid. Since then, they do not bring in a single cent. In fact, they actually cost quite a bit of money.

The reason for all this trouble: At the soldering points, the panels developed what are known as hot spots. These smouldering electrical fires burn through the back-skin and leave very conspicuous scorch marks. “No expert was able to rule out overheating, sparks, fire or personal injury as a result of electric shock,” Hans Joachim Här, who planned and installed the installations back then, reports. “And so the operator decided an immediate shut-down was the safest course of action.”

Three-way ping-pong

Ever since, the solicitor of the operator and the service provider in Hamburg are having a regular back-and-forth with S-Energy, the Korean manufacturer, because the insurance company R+V are firm in their position that it is nothing to do with them: There has clearly been a manufacturing fault and so the customer should go to S-Energy to make his claims. S-Energy on the other hand at first did not react at all, and then made a statement through a large solicitor’s office referring to the legal procedures in Korean courts.

When S-Energy flooded the German market with their faulty panels, solar panels were in short supply and the sector was going mad. People were building like there was no tomorrow. Now the madness is over and sanity is returning to the market. In the solar sector, Gangnam-style business clearly is not good enough anymore.

Three installations of one operator

A third installation is in Weddingstedt, also at the northernmost tip of Schleswig-Holstein. “We made claims on the panels here – 995 in total – in 2015,” Här explains. “In May of 2016, the assessors from Suncycle came by. The result: Nearly all the panels had some faults. Here, hot spots, and broken glass resulting from hot spots, were also discovered.”

Här has been in PV for a long time. So far, he has installed about 1,300 inverters. He supervises 10 installations that contain faulty panels by S-Energy. “All other installations run without a problem,” he confirms. Generally, he swears by the Korean panels. “They can take loads up to 840 kilograms and the workmanship is usually excellent,” he recounts. “Other than with these problematic batches, there have never been issues.”

It is not the installation that falls short

Under normal circumstances, solar generators in northern Germany can produce between 1,000 and 1,050 kilowatt hours per kilowatt. And now he is fed up, to put it mildly. “Cases such this one with S-Energy really run into money,” he complains. “That can be the end of me, financially.”

But one thing is clear: These are production faults and not the result of faulty installation. So the blame can be clearly attributed to the manufacturer, rather than the installing company that mounted the panels to the best of its ability and in the expectation that the Koreans would honour their warranties.

The replacement panels are also faulty

Suncycle, the European customer service provider of S-Energy, has already put together assessments for the three claims mentioned above, which we been given access to: the loss is massive.

Thus in Weddingstedt (233 kilowatts), of a total of 995 panels 70 percent are deficient. In other installations, about half to also 70 percent of panels are affected. Här is monitoring 86 installations that contain panels by the Korean manufacturer, and 10 of these are damaged in the familiar way.

As was the case in the Weddingstedt site. Following the inspection by Suncycle in May things seemed to go fairly smoothly at first: In September 2016, all panels were exchanged for refurbished ones. But according to the flash list, some of the panels now only produce 209 watts instead of the 235 when they were new.

But that was not the end of the story: “Then we noticed that during wet and misty conditions the insulation readings were off,” Ove Asmussen recounts. “Clearly, the repaired panels only worked in fair weather.”

Again e-mails went back and forth. In December a team from Suncycle brought 44 more panels to Weddingstedt, in order to get to the bottom of the matter. They were installed and the replaced panels were tested at the lab. The test showed that insufficient sealing at the along the long edges allowed moisture to enter the interior of the panels.

Ever since, Asmussen has been at loggerheads with Suncycle concerning when the remaining 950 panels would be exchanged for correctly repaired and sealed ones. Of course, considering the volume of damaged panels that need to be dealt with, the company can hardly keep up taking them off roofs elsewhere and refurbishing them as fast as possible. Even the subcontractor to S-Energy is unable to perform miracles if the manufacturer insists on riding out the storm.

Also pay for the second exchange

However, Asmussen will now also be required to pay for the second exchange of panels, i.e. cover the cost of removal and remounting. And one more thing: Soncycle have decided to first send one lorry full of panels and then to take the exchanged panels to the factory for testing and only then to send forth the second lorry. But is the scaffolding supposed to stay up all that time?

Furthermore, Suncycle charge a hefty sum for their assessments. For Weddingstedt, Asmussen’s company had to shell out 1,650 euros, 2,100 euros for Leck and 2,500 for Nordstrand.

And of course, the customer has to provide evidence of the damage. But it clearly is messy work during production rather than the usual customer service cases. “We once had a case where a storm blew off parts of an installation,” Asmussen recalls. “Back then we replaced about 40 kilowatts of S-Energy panels with panels by IBC Solar. The insurance covered that without questions asked.” (Heiko Schwarzburger)

Read more about solar modules

Read part two here: S-Energy and the risk of the manufacturer

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