Faulty Abound panels installed at Innosphere

FORT COLLINS – Abound Solar’s problems with solar panels extended beyond the manufacturing floor to the installation of defective solar arrays at a number of locations, according to people who installed and bought the defunct company’s panels.

The Rocky Mountain Innosphere, among others, had Abound Solar’s panels installed on the awning and roofs of its covered parking but needed them replaced after they started cracking, said Ryan Daniel, the Fort Collins technology incubator’s building manager.

“It was a flaw in design that’s not due to anything other than the way that they were designed,” Daniel said.

Abound Solar, which was founded in 2007, has never publicly acknowledged problems with its panels. However, the company’s 2011 quarterly reports to the U.S. Department of Energy revealed a series of production issues, as reported in the Nov. 2-15 issue of the Business Report.

The Innosphere’s experience is believed to be one of the first reports shedding light on Abound Solar’s faulty panels.

Abound’s collapse has drawn much attention because it drew down $70 million on a $400 million loan guarantee from the energy department before it declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July. As a result, taxpayers are expected to lose $40 million to $60 million, the energy department has said.

Installed at the Innosphere in January 2010, a number of Abound’s 350 panels developed cracks last year, Daniel said.

He informed Abound about the broken panels, which were covered by a warranty. The company told him that its design had “malfunctioned,” Daniel said, and it had an installer replace the panels in January.

“It’s not like they just replaced the ones that were cracked; they replaced every single one that they had here with new ones,” he said.

Abound replaced the panels in a timely manner, and the Innosphere has had no problems since, he added.

The Innosphere wasn’t the only organization that had trouble with Abound panels.

Namasté Solar’s first test project in 2010 using Abound panels, requested by a customer, also led to problems last year. Panels failed and had to be replaced, Namasté CEO Blake Jones said.

“We rarely have issues with solar panels,” he said. “For there to be more than one panel that needed to be replaced, it was a big issue.”

Namasté, which has offices in Boulder and Denver, typically installs panels made by established companies like Sharp and Kyocera. It bought panels from Abound only twice because of the negative experience.

“We were really excited about the potential that Abound had, because we would love to work with a local manufacturer,” Jones said. “But we also knew that they were starting relatively late in the game compared to a lot of older, more established players.”

The second Namasté installation using Abound panels was the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery, which had requested that Namasté install the local manufacturer’s panels.

When problems with Abound panels cropped up during the first project, Namasté checked with the museum about its panels, Jones said.

As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with the museum’s panels, which were installed last year, raising questions about whether some production runs had issues while others did not.

In testimony before Congress and media interviews, Abound has blamed its failure on competition from the Chinese. China’s government has subsidized its solar industry to the tune of billions of dollars.

But, as reported by the Business Report, the documents that Abound Solar filed with the DOE detailed a string of missed revenue and production goals as well as a record of defective products and equipment problems.

In its second-quarter report, Abound said it saw failures in the buss bars in its solar panels. Buss bars conduct electricity. The company noted in its third-quarter report that it was forced to spend money recycling panels with defective buss bars that it had produced in 2010, the year it received the loan guarantee.

Congressional Republicans have suggested a report from an engineering firm commissioned by the energy department in October 2010 indicated performance problems with Abound Solar’s panels. The report came two months before the energy department closed on the loan guarantee in December 2010.

Charlie Bacorn, owner of Fort Collins installation company Solar Service, said he never installed Abound Solar panels in his customers’ solar arrays.

His experience in the industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bacorn said, taught him better.

Back then, he sold “the latest and greatest everything.”

“It would come out one week, I’d be putting it up the next week,” he said. “(But) there was a lot of failure.”

That’s why he now only installs panels that have been on the market for at least five years.

“Anything less than that and all you are is R&D for the manufacturer,” he said.

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