South African solar installers and consumers should be wary of counterfeit solar panels being fraudulently sold under major brand names.
The warning comes from South African distributor M Solar Power Distribution and Cape Town-based solar installer AWPower.
The companies brought the issue to MyBroadband’s attention after a video published by Canadian Solar in July 2023, in which it warned consumers about an influx of counterfeit solar panels in the South African market.
“It has come to our attention that certain unauthorised entities are producing and distributing fake solar panels bearing our brand name and logo,” the company said.
“We take this matter very seriously, and we want to assure you that we are actively addressing this issue through the appropriate legal channels.”
“We are working closely with law enforcement agencies and regulatory authorities to take action against those responsible for the production and distribution of these counterfeit products.”
M Solar Power Distribution’s founder and director Mark Becker told MyBroadband his supply chain sources explained the problematic panels originate in China, which is also a manufacturing hub for the legitimate models.
The swindlers either rebrand poorly-manufactured models or B-grade units that legitimate companies like Canadian Solar, JA Solar, Jinko, and Longi rejected for not being up to scratch during factory quality control tests.
Others use secondhand panels taken down from a particular site, repackaging them and selling them as new.
While Canadian Solar advised customers to carefully inspect the panel packaging, labels, and product details to ensure it matched its official branding and specifications, Becker said this might not be enough.
“As a customer, you can’t tell the difference,” Becker said. “When I speak to my Chinese friends, they say China was built on learning to copy.”
“They are coming through regular distribution channels; it is not something you are going to find on a corner shop.”
“As an installer, don’t necessarily know you are installing a fake or rebranded panel; it just looks like the real thing.”
AWPower managing director Christiaan Hattingh said if M Solar Power Distribution and JA Solar had not alerted them to the issue, it could have fallen victim to the counterfeit goods.
He explained that AWPower would typically shop around for cheaper genuine panels if customers wanted something more cost-effective.
Another major problem is that the counterfeit panels might perform adequately in their initial years of operation but start malfunctioning in five to 10 years.
Genuine, high-quality solar panel brands typically have 25–30-year performance and 10–12-year product warranties.
“It’s a can of worms that is waiting to open up down the line,” Hattingh said.
Dangers of counterfeit solar panels
Although they can seemingly function relatively normally, counterfeit solar panels come with performance downsides and safety risks.
While generating power below the capacity of genuine products is one concern, it might only be the tip of the iceberg.
Badly-manufactured panels can expose users to potential property damage, injury, or death through fire or electrocution.
In addition, Becker pointed out that customers would not be able to claim the warranty on the panels should the manufacturer confirm they were not genuine.
This also leaves installers in a precarious position as they risk reputational damage with their customers, who were under the impression that they were covered in case something broke down.
Another complication might arise regarding insurance claims related to damage caused by counterfeit solar panels.
To ensure an installer is buying legitimate solar panels, they should engage directly with the vendor and obtain a certificate of authenticity when purchasing them, where possible.
Becker said this was the route available to his company when working with JA Solar.
One of the clear early indications that panels were knock-offs was their lower prices, although the swindlers priced them within range to make a big profit and keep them within the realm of reasonability.
On this front, the waters have been muddied further due to an oversupply of genuine panels on the market, which has led to sharp price cuts on legitimate products.
On the flip side, this has meant installers and consumers have less incentive to use new suppliers offering big deals rather than the reputed vendors.
Becker said solar panel manufacturers anticipate continued price reductions in the coming months, making it less appealing to risk buying potential fakes on promotions.
A few more key giveaways
Several Powerforum.co.za members have also complained about fake panels and discussed some of the dead giveaways to look out for on the products’ packaging.
That included several spelling and grammatical mistakes on the product’s specification label.
However, it should be emphasised that the counterfeiters could easily adapt and correct this, so the onus will fall on installers to double-check with vendors to confirm their products are legitimate.
Generally, users are advised to physically confirm the dimensions of the panels aligned with the official products and measure the Open Circuit voltage in full sun to see if it checked out.
Some genuine manufacturers will also have serialised panels that can be verified by scanning an attached QR code.
The screenshot below shows a fake solar panel’s specifications label, with spelling mistakes highlighted.