New test lab puts solar panels through our diverse weather

Jan 16, 2014

There’s a handful of machines in this corner of the massive Intertek testing facility in Cortland. They’re all designed to make sure solar energy panels can withstand being outside for decades, enduring rain, snow and even hail.

Rick Lewandowski, the executive director of the Center for Clean Energy Technology, shows an older solar panel that didn’t pass their test.

"You can see the impact on this particular module where the failure occurred," he said, rubbing his finger on a small chip out of the solar panel. It was damaged when they hit it with a two-inch think piece of ice traveling at 80 miles per hour.

The testing facility opened up last month with the help of about $2 million from New York’s energy research agency, NYSERDA. (Some money from the grant also went to a wind turbine testing facility at Clarkson University.)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed an additional billion dollars of investment in solar in his recent State of the State address.

Inside three chambers that look almost like bank vaults from the outside, solar panels aren’t just exposed to winter conditions, but also to extreme heat and humidity. There's a contraption to make it rain too.

Other machines subject the panels to short blasts of light and longer levels of simulated sunlight. The field of lights buzzing on makes a musical sound as a panel basks in the lights' glow.

The new lab, known as CECET for short, is the only one in the Northeast. The next nearest are in the Southeast and California.

In the month they’ve been open, CECET has already scored a couple of clients, including General Electric, according to Lewandowski.

He says his lab won’t only help solar companies get their technology approved for use, but to make it last its whole warranty period.

"Products that pass certification may not may not necessarily last the full 20 or 25 years of expected life or energy output," he said. "So a quality program that comes along with certification can be a very important piece for companies that are investing into solar."

The testing will make sure panels last the quarter century.

"It's really a significant offering that we provide to industry so that a company that is just starting out that may have very limited financial resources can tap into a wonderful array of research capabilities," he said.

Along with private companies, CECET has partnered with some New York colleges like R.I.T. and Alfred to test other solar products in development.