Industry Sees Many Challenges with BIS Certification Guidelines for Solar Modules

The rapid pace of solar installations in India has brought the concern for quality of equipment to the forefront. Recognizing the issue at hand, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) issued a series of guidelines for conducting tests on solar photovoltaic (SPV) modules (crystalline and thin film, including bifacial type).

The tests must be conducted by labs for compulsory registration with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for the implementation of the order titled Solar Photovoltaics Systems, Devices and Component Goods Order 2017.

The guidelines, though welcomed by the industry, have not produced the desired results, yet. Contrary to what was expected, manufacturers are not yet queuing up to get their modules certified. There are reportedly just 10-12 domestic and international players who have received the BIS certification.

An official at a newly opened test lab told Mercom, “We have received more than 30 inquiries about testing and certification, but we could not convert a single one.”

There is lingering confusion in terms of the specific guidelines issued by MNRE on BIS certification. For example, MNRE mandates that the nominal wattage and model number must be inside the glass lamination. But a technician involved with the testing of modules informed Mercom, “Nominal wattage is not exact wattage. The modules are within a range. For example, if you are making a module of 320 watts, it would be between 315 watts to 325 watts. As far as manufacturing is concerned, it is not possible to put the wattage of the module inside glass lamination because you get the output of wattage only after the lamination has been done. However, there is no problem with putting the model number inside lamination.”

He added, “There are chances of efficiency losses if we try to put rating levels inside lamination because we are adding EVA, backsheet, and glass. This is why the international practice is to fix rating level at the back side of the module that contains all the electrical information. BIS is adopting the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standard 14286. During the initial comments which MNRE sought from the test laboratories, we had made the same comment that module output can only be arrived after module lamination and it is not possible to put nominal output inside lamination.”

Completing the certification process can also be time-consuming. Many manufacturers who have submitted their samples for certification in April received the final accreditation only in late September/ October.  If another one and half months are added to get the BIS-certified inventory, plus the transit time, this can adversely affect the module availability in the market.

When Mercom asked a test laboratory involved with BIS certification, it said, “The time take by lab depends on various factors. For example, what certifications are needed to be done or when has the sample arrived, what is the work load of the lab at that time. So, it is difficult to clearly comment on the time taken for BIS certification.” Mercom also spoke with a module manufacturer, who stated, “The certification process can take between three to six months.”

The other concern is with small manufacturers. The government has given exemption from BIS certification to domestic solar modules manufactures with less than 50 MW capacity until 2020.

Samartha Wadhawa of Ritika Systems said, “Our capacity is less than 50 MW, so we have a time limited extension till 2020. This was highly welcomed. The BIS is highly similar to the IEC standards, if not exactly the same in certain places. We are already qualified for IEC, and BIS standard is not that different. Testing charges for every series of solar panel is ₹2.4 million (~$0.032 million) which comes around ₹15-20 million (~$0.20- 0.27 million) for five to six series of panels. This is extremely high and detrimental to medium sized organizations. Moreover, testing is repeated for even a minor change in BOM. If some relaxations are given in this regard it would help the small and medium scale industries.

What we should be propagating is whatever panels are made in India should have a ‘Made in India’ sticker laminated inside the panel. This should be non-negotiable. This is not happening right now. Most of the companies are importing panels from China and passing it under own brand name. This is the main issue.”

Another small manufacturer told Mercom India, “There are currently four labs for solar module testing – TUV, UL, National Institute of Solar Energy (NISE), and Hi Physix. We have already given our modules for testing before the notification for exemption came even though the cost is on the higher side. Additionally, there are no guidelines for periodical testing.”

A module manufacturer based out of National Capital Region (NCR) said, “I think the way solar industry is progressing, it is in a very bad shape and not headed in the right direction. The prices have gone down and you don’t have the margins. In this situation, you must compromise in the quality. The installation is meant to work for 25 years, but the layer thickness is just 1.25 mm. It is not going to last for 25 years. When the solar story started, the layer thickness was 6-7 mm. Now, it has reduced to 1.25 mm. With these prices it doesn’t make sense to go for certification.”

Mercom has earlier reported on the dearth of test centers in the country in the face of the rapid expansion of the domestic renewable industry. Earlier interactions with various project developers and manufacturers in the country revealed that the widespread sentiment of the industry is that the announced National Lab Policy and Quality Control Order could slow down project commissioning. However, you cannot have a market without any quality testing either.

Last year, after the quality order was introduced, a government official had told Mercom “This is a necessary step, we have been hearing from stakeholders that project quality should improve, and this order will take care of the quality of materials utilized.” The official added that the order is also expected to stop the supply of below-par modules and other supplies to India and increase the project capacity utilization factor (CUF).

Many foreign companies are eyeing the solar panel testing and certification market in India. Recently, Mitsui Chemicals, a Japanese company, announced that it has planned to establish a solar panel testing and certification lab in Gujarat in partnership with PI Berlin. The lab would be set up through its Indian affiliate, Mitsui Chemicals India Pvt. Ltd.

There is still a lot of work to be done to get the quality certification process right. The key is to do it without adding substantial cost or delaying project development.

Nitin is a staff reporter at Mercomindia.com and writes on renewable energy and related sectors. Prior to Mercom, Nitin has worked for CNN IBN, India News, Agricultural Spectrum and Bureaucracy Today. He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Communication from Manipal Institute of Communication at Manipal University and Master’s degree in International Relations from Jindal School of International Affairs. More articles from Nitin Kabeer