A place in the sun

Standards for solar PV support market needs

As the price of photovoltaic (PV) systems continues to tumble and the requirement for cleaner renewable forms of energy grows, more and more of our energy needs will be met by PV-generated power. The IEC is a leader in the field of PV standardization which falls under the responsibility of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems. The TC is publishing International Standards which facilitate market growth and global trade in this crucial sector.

Solar PV modules on Fiji
Lower prices mean PV modules are now widely accessible to export markets in the developing world.

The times they are a-changin’…Ecological concerns have boosted demand for renewable forms of energy across the globe and the production of solar panels is booming. Chinese manufacturers lead the way in a market dominated by Asian companies.

Made in China

According to the 2017 Global Status Report on Renewables published by REN21, an international non-profit association which is part of the United-Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Paris, global production of crystal silicon cells and modules rose sharply in 2016, with China dominating shipments for the eighth year running. “Locked in a race to build bigger, more advanced factories to produce panels faster and more cheaply than their competitors, companies announced expansions throughout the year,” the report states.

While some of this production boost has fulfilled demand from domestic markets, a sizeable chunk of it is destined for export. This growing surge in exports has been supported by the publication of numerous standards in the field of PV. Since the 1980s, the IEC has been at the leading edge of a wave of Standards production, guided by IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic systems.

 “Chinese manufacturers hugely boosted their production levels over the last ten years. To give you an example, when I started out in this industry in the 1980s, I was at the head of a small company which produced solar panels at a rate of 10 units per day. Nowadays in China, factories churn out thousands of panels per hour. In order to export, companies have to reassure customers that their products meet the required International Standards,” explains George Kelly, Secretary of IEC TC 82.

IEC TC 82 has issued 101 publications so far, with a record number of 32 coming out in 2016 alone. “We have published a lot over the last couple of years. There is a strong correlation between this rise in Standards and the increased popularity of PV-generated energy around the world,” Kelly agrees.

Developing needs

Increased production levels have led to a dramatic fall in the price of solar PV. “When we started out in the 1980s, the aim was to produce modules at a price of 1 USD/W. Now the industry has reached a level of 40 cents/W,” says George Kelly. Lowering prices mean that PV modules are now widely accessible to export markets in the developing world – making the requirement for IEC Standards all the more important. “TC 82/Joint Working Group (JWG)1, was established to prepare Standards and Technical Specifications for off-grid projects and hybrid systems that are now being implemented in developing nations. It has been working on the IEC 62257 series of Technical Specifications (TS) under the guidance of two co-convenors, one from South–Africa, Leon Drotsché and one from the US, Arne Jacobson. A big focus of the JWG is to ensure that developing countries, in Africa for instance, get the appropriate quality of solar panel equipment, in line with IEC Standards,” Kelly comments.

IEC TC 82 has published 18 Technical Specifications in the IEC 62257 series on recommendations for small renewable and hybrid systems for rural electrification and its significance has been recognized by the World Bank and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). In 2013, together with the IEC, they announced a new cooperative agreement, offering a specially discounted price for qualified stakeholders, in order to provide developing countries with access to these important technical documents that are designed to support rural electrification. The TC, which includes 355 experts, comprises 40 participating countries and 11 observer ones, drawn from all around the world.

Conformity assessment check

Another boost for IEC TC 82 publications has been the establishment of IECRE, the IEC System for Certification of Standards Relating to Equipment Used in Renewable Energy Applications. Kelly, who is also a member of the RE Management Committee (REMC), says: “We have been modifying our publications to build in Conformity Assessment (CA) requirements since 2014. A lot of work has been carried out to identify which areas need to be certified and where the gaps are.” 

As a result the solar PV sector is expected to issue its first Conformity Assessment certificate in the coming months. While the drive relating to CA will continue in the future, Kelly expects TC 82 to focus on energy storage in the next three to five years. “There is an increasing requirement for small decentralized battery units powered by renewable energy sources which you could fit in a truck or on a roof. Such systems already exist in some small Pacific islands, for instance. The batteries store energy and can power the island if anything goes wrong with the grid. They replace diesel generators at a comparable cost.”

To oversee standardization in rechargeable RE battery systems, TC 82 has formed a Joint Working Group with IEC TC 21: Secondary cells and batteries. JWG 82: Secondary cells and batteries for renewable energy storage, took part in the development of the "Battery section" of IEC Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 62111 on Decentralized Rural Electrification (DRE) which is now incorporated in the IEC TS 62257 series.

There is plenty more work to be done in areas such as interfaces and interconnecting storage systems with the main grid. “We collaborate with IEC TC 8: Systems aspects for electrical energy supply, more specifically with IEC Subcommittee (SC) 8A: Grid integration of renewable energy generation and IEC SC 8B: Decentralized electrical energy systems,” Kelly adds.

The TC therefore has a busy schedule ahead of it, with 50 new publications already planned for 2018. It helps, says Kelly, “that we all share a sense of purpose and a similar vision that we are achieving something that will benefit us all and our planet. We also have a huge amount of fun along the way.”