UL Interview_ New quality standards for solar modules will help consolidate growth in the Indian solar sector

The government’s recently introduced Quality Control Order has received mixed reactions from domestic solar sector stakeholders. A plethora of project developers are unhappy with the timing of the order, though they think the order is well-intentioned.

Mercom’s news team recently sat down with Peeyush Gupta, Director, sales and marketing, UL (Underwriters Laboratories), South Asia, at their facility in Bengaluru to discuss how the government’s policy will affect the Indian solar sector. Gupta shed light on the intricacies of the quality control procedures being followed by laboratories in the country to ensure the longevity and sustainability of projects and explained why the timing is suitable for the introduction of this order.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What does UL do?

UL is a 124-year-old independent safety science company that fosters safe living and working conditions around the world by applying science to solve safety, security and sustainability challenges. We test, inspect, audit, certify, validate, verify, advise and train and we support these efforts with software solutions for safety and sustainability.

The UL Mark builds trust to enable the safe adoption of innovative new products and technologies.

In the solar field, UL was probably the very first organization to write a solar standard in the 1970s. With solar and wind energy technologies proliferating at a rapid rate, UL has developed an advanced suite of end-to-end services to address the safety, quality and performance issues of these technologies.

In the solar industry, UL caters to a wide range of stakeholders across the value chain, including owners, operators, developers, financiers, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) insurers as well as manufacturers. We manage risk by providing technical information and data for energy yield assessments (EYA), technical due diligence and measurements and third party inspection. Our flexible service portfolio covers needs that range from project planning and construction to ongoing operations and maintenance.

UL can thus help the Indian renewable energy sector adapt to the highest standards. Our laboratory was the first private laboratory in India accredited to test MNRE requirements for PV components and systems. We work with some of the most significant players in the PV industry.

You said UL ventured into solar in the US in the 1970s. Compared to India, the US and German markets are very evolved. What’s the difference in standards between those countries and India?

For this, we need to know about the standards, regulations, and the ecosystem that exists in the market. Germany and the US have a huge legacy of solar products in terms of the entire ecosystem, whether it be in terms of sourcing raw materials, having better product quality, or ensuring compliance with local regulations.

There is a lot more history over there compared to a place like India where it is just starting. In India, the entire quality assurance and control movement is at a nascent stage. The Quality Control Order that was brought in last year by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and it is being mandated by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), is a step in the right direction.

What do you think about the order by MNRE, and can you elaborate on the role UL is going to play?

In India, the market is here and now. This is one of the fastest growing solar markets compared to anywhere else in the world. This is the right step taken by the MNRE for ensuring that there is some sort of quality built into the ecosystem.

I’m not saying that quality was not there before, but there was no framework to implement a robust quality assurance and control program.

Now, we all know that today between 80 to 90 percent of all solar modules are imported into the country. If you are an IPP or an investor and you are making a case for investing in a solar plant you are looking at a return period of 25 years in an industry which is so nascent, you would be inclined to assess the viability of the investment.

And that’s where UL’s role comes into the picture –   we pioneer safety science and provide services to help define and measure safety criteria and performance for products and processes. We test the effects that different weather and climatic conditions will have on the materials used in making the modules and provide a detailed analysis pertaining to safety, performance, quality and sustainability.

You said this is a good move, but developers are raising concerns about the timing of this order. What do you say, is the timing right or are we too late in seeking to implement this quality order?

All I want to say is “better late than never”. This is the time when India will be adding about 8 GW of renewable energy capacity per year, out of which a major portion will be solar, approximately 70 to 80 percent.

With this immense growth in the solar sector, could we have done this three years earlier? Maybe yes, but at that point in time we were just sowing the seeds for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM). When the industry was just gearing up for growth, a quality order would have added more challenges.

Can this be done five years hence, absolutely yes. But imagine, in five years, India would have 40 GW of solar capacity installed within the country. However, there may be uncertainty about safety, performance, quality and sustainability of the solar plant, as there was no measure to evaluate these parameters before degradation set in.

In short, the timing of the order is ideal and beneficial for all stakeholders involved.  In some ways this is giving credence to the industry by indicating that this technology is here to stay.

During our interactions with developers, several have said that IEC standards are not that different from other international standards. Considering that, what is the use of this standardization order?

The importance of this order is not so much about the standards but about the creation of a quality ecosystem that encompasses recognition of laboratories, assessment and certification of solar products and components as per the standards, and continuous compliance through market surveillance.  By establishing mandatory in-country testing and certification, we are securing the future investments in this sector.

This quality compliance order is trying to develop a framework to ensure compliance to the specified standards, which also includes tests relevant to the Indian climatic conditions.

Mercom did an article on the effect of the order on the solar sector. Back then, a few developers said there was a backlog. What do you say about this?

From UL’s standpoint, we are fully prepared to meet the demands of the market. We are on track with our preparedness to meet the market expectations on turnaround time and have the capacity to service multiple projects simultaneously. In anticipation of the surge in demand for testing once the order comes into effect, we are expanding our capacity and adding newer capabilities. The recognition from BIS is also not expected to affect the readiness of the testing industry as the government has given ample time to complete the necessary procedures.

Yes, there are going to be some initial teething problems and intermediary challenges. But, in order to create confidence that this industry is going to be the future of India, we must embrace this move.

In IEC testing, there is an exemption for something called process of similarity, but BIS demands that every bill of material be tested separately. Isn’t that a cumbersome policy that could lead to delays?

Those rules about process of similarity are being laid out. There are models that are available today in terms of how you use similarities between different models to do testing. In our experience, the ministry has been extremely open to hearing feedback and understanding concerns of the industry, including the model similarities and dissimilarities. I am sure there will be more models developed to help the industry in the long term.

Do you think this represents a paradigm shift in the thought process of the Indian government toward the electrical and solar sectors?

Yes, it is an interesting move. The impact is twofold, it will encourage better quality products by ensuring that only the manufacturers who comply with local laws and regulations will be able to sell in the country.

Once you have this kind of regulation and framework, it also becomes easier to claim compliance and export to the global market. Everyone in the solar industry must welcome this move as it is creating a win-win situation.

Image credit: UL