By: Scott Sullivan, Senior Director of Sales, Marketing & Service at SIC USA
As Britain left the European Union during “Brexit” this summer, I drew a correlation to the companies who have left the solar industry. What happens in the aftermath? Though many types of manufacturers have exited the solar market, I’ve focused on those in my area of expertise: inverters. So what happens if your inverter provider pulls an Invexit?
My inverter company just exited—so now what?
Many questions race through solar contractors minds when they hear this news: Is my warranty still intact? Who will provide service and maintenance? Will I even be able to get anyone on the phone?
The first step to addressing these concerns is to determine what really happened to the company. Did it actually go out of business? Maybe it was sold, or just the inverter division was sold to another entity. Maybe it just closed its North American facilities, but will remain active in other markets. The answers to these questions matter because each scenario offers different challenges and opportunities.
Your concerns also depend on where you are in the supply chain. If you are a large utility-scale solar developer with multi-megawatt inverter platforms tied to projects’ financial viability your concerns are different—though not necessarily less stressful—than the residential solar installer.
If you’re a residential installer who bought your inverters through distribution, you’re in luck. I know most of the solar distributors in North America and I can say unequivocally that they are genuinely customer focused. For the most part, I believe they will work with you if your inverter needs service or replacement. If your inverter manufacturer is not in the market any longer just call your distributor and discuss your concerns. I bet they’ll be able to help.
Commercial and utility considerations
Unfortunately, if you bought a commercial or utility-size inverter getting maintenance or repair may be more complicated. Even an extended warranty may not hold up if the inverter company filed bankruptcy and doesn’t exist anymore. That warranty is probably gone too, as was the case with Satcon, Enecsys or Ballard. However, if your inverter company simply stopped selling inverters in North America and is still around you probably have time before your warranty is voided or modified. This is the case with Advanced Energy, Trace and Xantrex. For example, when Schneider bought Trace/Xantrex it also purchased the warranty liability along with the IP and resources of the company. It has a financial obligation to the contract, meaning the warranty.
What’s happened with Satcon
If you happen to own a Satcon inverter, you are in good company. With 1.6 GW of installed Satcon inverters in North America, you are not in this alone. The Chinese contract manufacturer for Satcon, CEC GreatWall, bought the name and IP but not the warranty liability. That means the same people making inverters in Shenzhen, China for Satcon when it was a Boston-based company are still making that same quality product for themselves. They offer OEM parts availability (even those proprietary to Satcon units like computer boards) plus technician training, along with phone and technical support through their relationships with partners in the U.S. and Greece. Satcon is actually back in the North American market with an exclusive arrangement with Skwentex International Corporation (SIC) to offer new Satcon inverters. These include a standard five-year warranty on both parts and service. I know it doesn’t heal the sting of not getting the full value of a formerly purchased 20-year warranty, but at least it provides options.
Other sources of help
If you’re caught in an Invexit, or loss of another type of manufactuer, there are other places to turn. Associations such as SEPA, SEIA and the SunSpec Alliance can be helpful resources. Discussing your issues with other experts at tradeshows, online forums and social media can help you find solutions too. You may even find past employees of those companies on LinkedIn still out in the market with an amazing wealth of knowledge and willing to help. Chances are the past company has digitalized its installation manuals or even its complete bill of materials, which you may be able to access online. Even other inverter manufactures may be able to assist. Many use the same parts so it’s possible they can provide the parts and service you need. If not, they may be able to help you obtain a replacement unit.
Learning together as an industry
As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The solar industry is still young, so we can expect challenges with equipment manufacturers. It’s important to buy quality equipment and learn from the past. Maybe a 20-year warranty from a two-year-old manufacturing company wasn’t the best idea? Maybe escrow that extended warranty money and get to know your local service technician.
Don’t give up; all hope is not lost. Just because your inverter company exited the market doesn’t mean that you don’t have options to be assured your solar array will live a long and productive life.