Several series of six-cell photovoltaic test-modules—intact and with deliberately generated failures (micro-cracks, cell cracks, glass breakage and connection defects)—were artificially and naturally aged. They were exposed to various stress conditions (temperature, humidity and irradiation) in different climate chambers in order to identify (i) the stress-induced effects; (ii) the potential propagation of the failures and (iii) their influence on the performance. For comparison, one set of test-modules was also aged in an outdoor test site. All photovoltaic (PV) modules were thoroughly electrically characterized by electroluminescence and performance measurements before and after the accelerated ageing and the outdoor test. In addition, the formation of fluorescence effects in the encapsulation of the test modules in the course of the accelerated ageing tests was followed over time using UV-fluorescence imaging measurements. It was found that the performance of PV test modules with mechanical module failures was rather unaffected upon storage under various stress conditions. However, numerous micro-cracks led to a higher rate of degradation. The polymeric encapsulate of the PV modules showed the build-up of distinctive fluorescence effects with increasing lifetime as the encapsulant material degraded under the influence of climatic stress factors (mainly irradiation by sunlight and elevated temperature) by forming fluorophores. The induction period for the fluorescence effects of the polymeric encapsulant to be detectable was ~1 year of outdoor weathering (in middle Europe) and 300 h of artificial irradiation (with 1000 W/m2
artificial sunlight 300–2500 nm). In the presence of irradiation, oxygen—which permeated into the module through the polymeric backsheet—bleached the fluorescence of the encapsulant top layer between the cells, above cell cracks and micro-cracks. Thus, UV-F imaging is a perfect tool for on-site detection of module failures connected with a mechanical rupture of solar cells.
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