Solar panels failing after six years

Why let the amateurs at the power company generate and deliver power in exchange for a monthly subscription fee when you can go into the power generation business yourself?

A local friend (and MIT PhD in EECS!) put solar panels on his roof six years ago, responding to the massive government handouts on offer at the time (thanks, fellow Massachusetts taxpayers!). Roughly half of the panels have now failed, casualties of squirrels, UV light, etc.

Given the rising cost of labor (a bundle of wages and health care expenses), will it turn out that America’s big rooftop solar experiment was a colossal failure from a total lifecycle cost perspective?

Already it seems to me that single-family homes are unaffordable for a typical family because the cost and challenge of bringing contractors in to maintain all of the systems has been growing every year. Adding an electricity generation plant on the roof makes this problem worse.

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27 thoughts on “Solar panels failing after six years

  1. I don’t know how the utilities are in Massachusetts, but here in the Bay Area, our utility is PG&E, and we would settle for them being amateurs, as opposed to murderously negligent (see the movie Erin Brockovich for details, or search for the San Bruno pipeline disaster or the Sonoma and Campfire wildfires).

    I suspect your frigid winters are mostly to blame for the failure rate. We had 3kW solar panels in my previous house (installed for the previous owners by SolarCity, now Tesla, in 2008) and they were still working in 2019 with no problems whatsoever.

    You also forget to account for the grid, which is what makes distributed solar competitive with centralized power generation. In places like Hawaii, it’s already a no-brainer, the only remaining being electricity storage, but there is a lot of progress in areas like redox flow batteries and sodium rather than lithium batteries, that I would expect workable solutions to be available within the coming decade.

  2. Interesting that with no interest & no down payment for the last 20 years, no-one thinks about the mortgage being part of affordability anymore. The government has succeeded in making houses free, except for the maintenance. Over 10 years, Dave Jones lost a panel to a meteorite, then lost all of them to water intrusion in a cutoff switch. The 2 repairs were far less than the cost of the complete system. Still nowhere close to the efficiency of the good old natural gas fired airplane engine. Most of Calif’s electricity comes from repurposed airplane engines.

    • “The government has succeeded in making houses free, except for the maintenance. ”

      Cannot forget the property tax.

  3. I installed a 20W solar-powered attic fan in my second story attic gable vent. It ran well, even on overcast days, for two years then died. Now I have to climb up on the ladder to remove the fan and solar panel.

    “Already it seems to me that single-family homes are unaffordable for a typical family because the cost and challenge of bringing contractors in to maintain all of the systems has been growing every year.”

    In 2010, I bought a foreclosed single-family home. I’ve put $60K in to it since, and thousands of hours of my own labor. I’m getting to the point of cashing out and go rent, but I think renting has become more costly than home ownership.

  4. We are getting off topic.

    Home ownership is ridiculously difficult to get into those days. Throw into the mix student loan and you see why couples cannot start their life together and singles not able to move up. Rent is the only option, but rent is high too you won’t be able to save for a down payment to buy a home (remember you have student loan to pay).

    Elizabeth Warren recognizes this and she is preaching to those group to get their vote [1]. But who will pay the government to wipe out those student loans?

    [1] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/elizabeth-warren-to-introduce-bill-cancelling-up-to-50000-in-student-debt-for-most-borrowers-2019-06-13

  5. At the risk of opening a huge can of worms, I have to wonder a few things: given the amount of surface area to cover, the constant maintenance, etc., plus the batteries, and then considering all all the attendant problems of wind power, what ever happened to the idea of thermonuclear fusion?

    I remember my father talking about tokamaks and inertial confinement back in the 1970s during the Arab Oil Embargo and the attendant gas crisis when fusion was “just 20 years away, don’t worry.” Then I seem to recall a burst of activity around the time of the first Gulf War with the National Ignition Facility at Lawence Livermore National Labs and its gigantic laser systems zapping hohlraum targets with enormous Death Star quantities (short!) of laser intensity.

    Then I stopped reading about the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the NIF when everything moved to France with the ITER project – again, about 20 years ago by my recollection and we seem to be just as far away as we ever were. It’s always part of the “long term energy plans” but while there seems to be a lot of research and DoD contracting going on at NIF (stockpile stewardship, materials research, etc.) nothing else ever materializes. We did all this work building these high-powered laser systems but I never see any headlines about the NIF generating enough power to inexpensively light up a Christmas tree.

    Every time we have a war involving the Strait of Hormuz or a huge oil price spike for other reasons, we get another half the distance to fusion, or so it seems. Do we have to ask Zeno how many more halves remain?

    https://lasers.llnl.gov/science/energy-for-the-future

    Listening to my father talk about all the crummy solar cell installations in the 70s (lots of money went into it then, too) I would have thought so many things would be true today and the world would be wondrous, green and beautiful, but all those things seem even farther than they ever were. Do we have to ask Zeno why that is?

    • Fusion power was a fraud perpetrated on the taxpayer by grant-hungry academic scientists (but surely they wouldn’t do it again!). It is a fun lab idea that can employ a lot of PhDs, but the engineering reality would be keeping the coldest thing in the universe (the supercooled magnets) right next to something as hot as the core of a star (hydrogen fusion).

  6. Back on Topic:

    It looks to me like millennials aren’t going to be able to afford doing anything other than trying to maintain what their own families already own if the recent reports about their net worth are meant to be believed. Can we survive another huge Subprime Mortgage Tango and blow the economy to smithereens again? I wonder if the Pritzker family is ready for Act II?

    On the other hand, maybe we can combat the high labor cost of installing and maintaining all that solar by training the millions of new Americans to do it under the table.

  7. Nuclear power, properly administered in the French manner, is cheap and sustainable. It is opposed by the majority, who are ignoramuses.

    • I used to be a huge supporter of the French model, but not anymore. Not after the Boeing MAX fiasco. Not after the Second Avenue subway line at an average cost of $ 1B per mile.

      It is not about technology. It’s more about: (1) the safety risk of regulatory capture and (2) our inability to maintain and repair what we already have. So, please not in my backyard.

    • Administered by French people, too! I don’t think it is straightforward to mix and match best practices from societies. An expert watchmaker told me of Rolex USA’s attempt to train Americans to be sufficiently expert at watchmaking to take apart a Rolex, clean it, and put it back together. It wasn’t possible. (They set up a kind of assembly line instead, with people trained on a handful of tasks.)

    • Borrowing from other cultures and successfully/adapting and enhancing it is a form of art that, e.g., some East Asian nations excel at. (There ‘s lot of vitriol on how Japan, as well as China, would steal a Western idea and then retrofit it to suit their needs.) OK, that is called learning from the leaders, and the opposite of that is not learning, so which one is better? Having a revolutionary raw idea and not being able to implement it properly is called Tesla Motors. Personally, I’d rather buy an electric car from BMW.

      But the bottom line, as chalk-marked by Phil, is suddenly getting scary as it all screams the USSR of the late 1980s. The watch disassembly story, or why Russian engineering PhDs are not as good as Malaysian peasants at high-tech manufacturing. The costs story. The inability to get things dune, either on time or at all. The culture wars, the noxious populism and the propaganda in the mass media. The attitude of entitlement: you pretend to pay and we pretend to work. Proliferation of political charlatans such as Bernie Sanders, and, to a degree, Donald Trump. Deference to the religious/ideological authority and social justice wars to match the Maoist Cultural Revolution.. Common rent-seeking and a poisonous disrespect for anyone who can get anything done. Are we channeling the USSR in 1980s?

    • Can readers of the Soviet descent please comment? Am I making sense at all? Please critique. (And needless to say, all others are welcome too!)

    • Agree with the Boeing Max comparison. We are to stupid, lazy, or greedy to play with nuclear, mostly greedy. Boeing had to get that plane out to cover developmental costs at the expense of extensive testing, and lives. Not to get too far from the OP about failed solar panels, if they are failing to meet the industry quoted 25 yrs life, it’s because some where, corners were cut, engineering, installation, or maintenance in the name of “cost savings”. Failed panel=inconvenience. Failed nuclear plant or airliner component=very bad day (several decades). I work in Facility management, the quarterly budget outweighs the long term health of a building…….. Maintain to Failure like 99% of most people’s automobiles and health……..

  8. This sounds like: “Houses don’t work since they burn down”.
    Squirrels can damage a house with no solar panels too. Plus at least they are fixable, just replace the wiring, plus add a squirrel guard. UV damage is under warranty, so use it if they failed prematurely. With a 5 year payback having half at 6 years should still be saving more money than what would have been spent, but I don’t know the details of when they failed.

    Since more people die installing solar than from nuclear per energy generated, nuclear should be what is used at the utility level, but people’s fear gets the best of them.

    • Roofing is one of the most dangerous professions. Installing solar, on roofs, is basically the same. Yet, we keep sending young men up there to die in the name of keeping us dry. There have been (3?) significant power generating nuclear accidents. Any one of which could have killed millions of people and contaminated entire regions for centuries. And it’s not getting better with time and technology. The San Onofre nuclear plant was recently shut down after Mitsubishi botched the design and manufacture of a new steam generator section. The new units were designed to last as long as the units they replaced, 20 years, but only lasted 3 before dangerous levels of wear were detected. Why didn’t they just replace the 20 year old units with the same design? Greed. All the advances in technology, engineering and manufacturing can’t save us from ourselves. Capitalism doesn’t allow for safety as a priority. The recent Boeing debacle is a testament to that. When profits start dictating engineering for life and death systems, there are going to be catastrophic consequences. San Onofre could have wiped out the entire Southern California metropolis from San Diego to Orange County and Los Angeles. People who work on roofs die one at a time and at least have a choice in the matter.

  9. I got a power purchase agreement a few years back. No tax break, but the viability and performance of the system is contractually someone else’s problem.

  10. Solar has it’s place. To make solar even cheaper the Chinese are making cheaper and cheaper quality
    Panel lasting 8 to 10 years in good climates like California. 6 to 8 years in Michigan. So, the panel produces enough power to cover the power it took to make it in 8 years. The return is negative. Your still paying for that panel for another 7 years to break even. That’s like paying for a house that has lost 40% of it’s value!
    What did we do during the financial crisis? Just walk away.

  11. it would be really interesting to see what’s the variation in panel lifetime, by panel type and by US region. I suspect areas with hot summers have slow panel degradation over time, and areas with freezing winters get a lot of mechanical failures with connectors, cracked insulators, etc.

    Thermal solar for heating swimming pool water is amazingly cost effective too, if you ignore the cost of fixing the leaks. No gas heating bill! But you have to fix the water leaks on your roof, so it’s a few hundred $ in annual repairs.

    Supposedly the most effective installation is the panels that combine PV solar with thermal solar, where the water flow cooling the PV panels can dramatically increase the efficiency of the panels on a hot day, so smaller square footage can generate a lot more power.

    But then you get both PV panel degradation and constant plumbing leaks. So the installation ROI needs to account for paying whomever is climbing onto the roof a few times a year.

  12. Please bring back nuclear plants and make more of them. They are safe, efficient and will reverse “global warming”. What more do you want?

    Still not convinced? Do some basic research over the history of nuclear plants all over the world and sum-up how many died because of it. Make sure to take into account no only those who died during the accident, but those who died because of it 10, 20, 50 years after the accident due to radiation, et. al. And if that’s not enough, also take into account the cost of clean up, the cost of not being able to use the land for decades after the accident, et. al. Now compare that to other kind of deaths results from say, working on the oil field, natural gas, coal, making solar panel, wind turbines, et. al., and than transporting those energies, death caused by using those energies at home, buildings, cars, et. al.; the impact of extracting and refining, making the solar panel, turbines, et. al. on the land both short term and long term, and so on and so forth. At the end, you will see that nuclear plants are far safer with less impact all around.

    This is no different to comparing the safety of airplane travel vs. land travel. When an airplane goes down, few thunderhead people die a sudden death all together within minutes and such event is on the news 24×7 for few days followed with updates over the next few weeks and months — it sticks on. But no one cares to report about the more than 3000 death [1] a day due to car accident.

    [1] https://www.asirt.org/safe-travel/road-safety-facts/

    • George: Are you sure that nuclear plants, when operated and maintained by Americans, are “efficient” in terms of cost? A bunch of already-built nuclear plants have been shut down due to being more expensive to operate than the cost of building (from scratch) and running a natural gas-fired plant. If, given a construction cost of $0 (already built), a nuclear plant cannot survive market forces, how can it make economic sense to build more in the U.S.?

  13. From the wiki. Yes some of us in Arizona are good at building and running nuclear power stations cost effectively. This station supplies electricity to LA, San Diego and Phoenix. It has been running for 30 years. .

    ” The Palo Verde Generating Station supplies electricity at an operating cost (including fuel and maintenance) of 4.3 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2015.[9][10] As of 2002, Palo Verde supplied electricity at 1.33 cents per kilowatt-hour;[8] that price was cheaper than the cost of coal (2.26 cents per kW·h) or natural gas (4.54 cents per kW·h) in the region. However, this power was more expensive than hydroelectric power (0.63 cents per kW·h). In 2002, the wholesale value of the electricity produced was 2.5 cents per kW·h. By 2007, the wholesale value of electricity at the Palo Verde Generating Station was 6.33 cents per kW·h.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palo_Verde_Nuclear_Generating_Station

  14. Nuclear power stations do have accidents! People do die and not because of the radiation. I worked on coal fired power stations and oil refineries and these installations also take lives – where I worked mostly from falls. Coal fired power stations have mining accidents to consider too. It is unfortunate that all people can think of is death from radiation. All industries have fatalities – do we have to shut them all down?

  15. These postings and replies are ridiculous. For starters, claiming panels to fail in six years could not possibly be true. It’s possible that the system was installed by amateurs especially when it was done some time ago where inspections are not truly conducted are lack of knowledge. Your degree and $1.25 could not buy a cup coffee in most places, speaking of cheap, if you paid for a system that isn’t working now, you got what you paid for. It’s possible that all you need to do replace the wire nuts to waterproof wire nuts. If you want it done by a pro, be prepared to pay some dough.

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