Finding the right solar panel manufacturer

October 28, 2014

Arguably the most important choice you’ll make if you go solar is who’s going to make your panels? I considered four different manufacturers, and discovered that return-on-investment was just one of several values at play in my decision. Here’s my list of pros and cons, at a glance:

Manufacturer Pros Cons
  • most powerful, efficient modules
  • most attractive modules
  • manufactured in Mexico
  • relatively high price per watt
  • slower ROI
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • delivery delays reported
  • least attractive modules
  • manufactured in Oregon
  • Green Brand certified
  • relatively low price per watt
  • attractive modules
  • fast, reliable delivery
  • slower ROI
Silicon Energy
  • manufactured in Washington state
  • faster ROI
  • attractive modules
  • announced that no new orders would be accepted in 2014

Itek, located in Bellingham, and Silicon Energy, located in Arlington, are the two in-state manufacturers you can choose from if you want to take advantage of the attractive incentive program currently in place in Washington. Through this program, you can earn 54 cents per kilowatt hour produced by your solar array if you have bought panels and inverters locally. This is the biggest reason why ROI is quicker for consumers with these in-state panels.

By contrast, if neither your panels nor inverters are manufactured within state lines, you earn 15 cents per kilowatt hour. It’s still a nice perk of going solar here, but it’s obviously considerably less, and the ROI for consumers who go this route could be double the amount of time or more.

I was disappointed that Silicon Energy essentially played itself out of the competition for my business by stopping new orders for the year. I would have liked to support a small in-state business.

Itek struck me as a safe, solid choice if I were determined to get those in-state incentives and enjoy the quickest ROI. But ultimately I rejected their panels for aesthetic reasons: their clunky appearance, with old-school gridlines and overly-visible framing, just didn’t appeal to me. My hope is that in the future they will offer more variety in their lines.

So that left me with my two out-of-state options (there are, of course, many more, but it helps to place some limits on the range of choices). For sheer efficiency and aesthetics, SunPower would have been my choice. Their modules are rated at 320-330 watts, while the others come in at 270-280 at this writing. And their Signature Black Solar Panel line is as elegant as I’ve found on the market (all black, no visible gridlines or framing). But I really value local and U.S. made products, and the fact that SunPower is neither was a negative mark I would find it hard to live with, much less sell to my wife!

Although SolarWorld has German roots, its U.S. headquarters in the Portland area produces American-made panels. I have some family ties to Oregon, and frankly Portland seems as local to me as Bellingham or Arlington. It is just an unfortunate river that gets in the way of SolarWorld panels qualifying for the Washington state incentive.

More importantly, because they are a larger and more established company, SolarWorld could get their product up on my roof in about a month, with no delivery delays or drama surrounding inventory. SolarWorld is the only one of the four that had been certified green, a compelling selling point in a competitive market. And finally, from a design point-of-view, their black frame line is second only to SunPower for visual appeal.

The ROI for my SolarWorld array is projected to be 13 years. It is certainly possible that technical advances in panel efficiency in the future will make that feel like an albatross around my neck. But for me, competing values such as reliability, aesthetics, and “local-enough” were enough to impact my choice of manufacturer.

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