As I stepped into the airport taxi, the driver asked me what brought me to town. I told him, “Solar Power International, the largest solar conference in North America. They say 20,000 people will be there.” It turns out the driver, whose name was Steve, happened to be an expert on solar. And, based on his assessment, all 20,000 of us coming to town were wasting our time, “Everyone knows that every solar company is losing money. They only survive because of massive subsidies from the government.” I responded, “Steve, you know I’m in that industry, right?” Steve interpreted my response as an invitation to give me a fifteen-minute sermon on why this horrible industry was single-handedly killing the coal business. It was an entertaining way to start an awesome three-day adventure in the heart of the solar business. Needless to say, after I stepped out of Steve’s cab, the conversations took a slightly more optimistic position on the industry.
Fueled by coffee, alcohol, hair gel, $20 sandwiches, and free pens of every imaginable color, font, and brand, SPI was a beehive of solar motion. Conference-goers spoke their own language of cents-per-watt, tax equity financing, and optimal irradiation angles. Stretched across 240,000 square feet, SPI was an endless sea of booths, people, and industry buzzwords.
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Racks, racks, everywhere
If there was one thing that jumped out and surprised me, it was racks. You know racks… those metal things that secure solar panels to rooftops and fields. When I say there were a lot of rack companies, I mean the conference directory had over 100 competitors. To my untrained eye, it was an endless parade of dull gray steel things with the occasional motor or gear (of course, one innovative company painted their racks green so it stood out).
Fortunately, among the countless similar looking systems, Atlanta’s Quest Renewables was on hand to bring some serious innovation to this part of the industry. Quest opens up an entirely new place to put solar panels – some of the most under-used but pervasive real estate in modern society – parking lots. Not surprisingly, their booth kept very busy.
Cool looking products
This is not to say there weren’t some really cool looking products, like bulldozers that got mangled into panel cleaning beasts; giant screws for putting panels on top of rocks; super-sleek electric motorcycles; solar clothes; retro-looking solar controllers; and much more.
Despite all the racks and Frankenstein solar washers, SPI broke new ground in 2017 and welcomed in some truly future-facing energy solutions. My favorite part was a big section on microgrids. There were many really cool vendors but the part that I liked best was a live, operating, demonstration microgrid they’d assembled for the show. If you’re a distributed energy nerd like me, this was like seeing Bruce Springsteen play the Roxy in 1978.
Not only did they have microgrid product demos, they also had a fully installed “tiny house” showing off how a microgrid can power a modern home entirely off-grid.
Next door to microgrids was another first-time section – this one was for hydrogen power. Many people believe hydrogen is the ultimate energy source. If you combine hydrogen with oxygen, you get a perfectly clean source of electricity – the only waste product is good ole’ H20, water. While it’s still many years away, I tip my hat to SPI for giving us a sneak peek at where this may lead.
Wheeling and dealing
After a day or so of technical sessions and exhibit floor browsing, I quickly realized that most people didn’t come to the conference to see products – they came to build relationships and do deals. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than standing outside the Clean Energy Associates booth (full disclosure: I’m on CEA’s board). I witnessed a near constant stream of bankers, C-level solar execs, investors, industry analysts and, of course, customers, find their way to the booth to meet CEA’s team and other industry execs. It was like Grand Central Station for deals and industry intel.
Over the hum of products, deals, and free pens, there was one topic that crept into every single conversation: September 22. This is the date that the US International Trade Commission will release their initial findings on a trade case that could upend the solar industry and set it back a decade. I wrote about the Section 201 case in an earlier blog but, in short, the two large US solar manufacturers both went bankrupt in early 2017 and then shortly afterward, jointly requested the US government impose stiff import tariffs on all foreign solar products. Since the hyper-growing US solar business is almost entirely fueled by Asian solar panels, a sharp increase in costs could bring the US solar installation market to a screeching halt.
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Solar Power International is a perfect lens to study the $25 billion solar market. Attendees come from the US but also from all over the world – the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and, of course, Asia. The discussions are as much about regulations, tax policy and financial structuring as they are about kilowatts and silicon. Many parts of the conference were surprisingly mundane but the real story is that 20,000 people are betting their careers and the future of the planet that we can power the earth with sunlight.
With all due respect to my sermonizing cab driver Steve, solar is neither too expensive or too early. Solar is here now and it’s here to stay.