Many manufacturers of photovoltaic solar panels offer some sort of warranty that is valid for 15 to 25 years. Many people suggest that after that period of time, a replacement of the panels is necessary

For example:

The lifetime of solar panels (photovoltaic panels) on average ranges between 20-25 years – different solar panel companies may give different guaranties for the performance and operation of their solar panels.

Also this:

PV panels can last up to 25 years or more, some with a maximum efficiency loss of 18% only, even after 20 years of operation.

Both suggesting that there is about a 20 year lifetime and then you have to replace your solar panels.

I am skeptical that something that works 20 years would, all of a sudden, stop working and require replacement. I expect that a non-mechanical device has little wear-out. That's why there is a relatively long warranty period. For that reason, it is not reasonable to expect much performance loss over time. I expect that even after 20 years, a solar panel will still generate at least 80% of its initial performance which really makes me wonder about why a replacement should be necessary.

  • I have "struck-out" your notability link, because nothing on that page suggests that the lifetime is limited strictly to a fixed time. A better notability reference would be desirable. Especially, you have claimed that the replacement is due to sudden failure, rather than gradual efficiency loss.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 12:37
  • @Oddthinking I am honestly still struggeling with the lifetime of an PV-module here. I am sorry if you are unsatisfied with my references. Indeed it is that my skeptic question was with regard to people claiming that. When asked they are themselves always without a reference, which actually induced me being skeptic. I will try to find some references and if so will edit the post here. Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 13:34
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    Sorry, I was unclear. Welcome to Skeptics!. I am not looking for a quality reference that has evidence of an answer. I am looking for a "notability" reference - it is an example of someone making the claim. There are a number of reasons we ask for those references - but partly to make sure that our answers addresses a real claim, not just a misunderstanding. At the moment, we don't know if anyone actual thinks that PV cells fail after 20 years.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 13:58
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    @Oddthinking thank you then for the information. I will as suggested strive to provide such a reference. Thank you. Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 14:00
  • Perhaps I have misunderstood. I thought people were saying "PV cells almost always survive until the warranty is over, then die suddenly" and you were skeptical that they fail in a short window after a long period. But people are saying "They last for two or more decades, on average.", without giving a small window, and you seem to be saying "If they last 20 years, they should last forever."
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 17:41

1 Answer 1


The life time of photo voltaic (PV) cells is fundamental in assessing the ecological impact and greenhouse gas emissions of solar power. As such, it has been studied in thousands of papers, some of which report on measurements spanning 20 years.

The problem with the panels is that their efficiency drops a certain amount per year. After a while, the panel fails -- there are studies around the various failure modes as well. This yearly degradation has been measured to be between 0.5% and 1% (depending on study and PV type), however failure is due to cumulative damage and is catastrophic (e.g. a panel at a certain point short circuits).

So obviously you need to replace a PV panel only when it short-circuits or shunts and stops working, or when it's not cost-efficient anymore due to a grossly degraded efficiency, however if you have many -- such as in a power plant -- what matters is the number of average years: some panels will break sooner, some later and basically only the average affects your bottom line.

A history of degradation rates using field tests reported in the literature during the last 40 years has been summarized. Nearly 2000 degradation rates, measured on individual modules or entire systems, have been assembled from the literature and show a mean degradation rate of 0·8%/year and a median value of 0·5%/year. The majority, 78% of all data, reported a degradation rate of <1%/year.

A very good meta-analysis of ~2,000 studies has been performed by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

What they found is that recent PV systems are predicted to last over 25 years (maybe 30 or so), the older one are a litlle less reliable. The figure that follows is takend from the NREL study linked above and gives an idea of typical measured life times of panels in studies varying by the year the study was published.

PV Lifespan

  • Can you summarize this more clearly, please: is the problem that efficiency degrades slightly, or that units fail entirely, or both? Why does efficiency degrade, and is there a graph of how much typical efficiency degrades over years? And another graph of expected complete-failure rate over years? Where does your "Figure 4" come from, and what does it show (it's not clear to me how to read it): what does "Degradation Rate Publication" mean on the vertical axis, and why does it show a cluster of "degradation rate publications" in the first 5 or 10 exposure-lengths-years?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 12:34
  • Where a device has maintenance costs (e.g. cleaning, rental of space, opportunity costs of limited roof-space, etc.), the degradation of efficiency may dictate a replacement earlier than the total failure date. I speculate that may be why people may be saying it will need replacing after 25 years, even if it hasn't failed outright.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 12:49
  • @ChrisW as I said there are multiple failure modes. Degradation occurs slowly but failure happens catastrophically. If you are interested in the details, you can look at the paper I've linked. I'll try to clarify.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 13:14
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    @Oddthinking that could be, however it wouldn't impact warranty lengths, which are clearly correlated to degradation rate as per Fig. 4.
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 13:16
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    @Sklivvz the figure in the answer doesn't represent what you are saying. You say "gives an idea of typical measured life times of panels", but the y-aixs is merely showing the lengths of the studies by publication date. The length of the studies have no relationship to the lifetimes of the panels themselves.
    – DavePhD
    Commented May 27, 2016 at 12:23

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