What Were Solar Pros Thinking During The SPI Show?

Joseph Bebon
Written by Joseph BebonSeptember 15, 2016

Solar trade shows offer much more than business networking, technology demos, free pens and, of course, complimentary booze. They provide a great opportunity to pick the brains of industry stakeholders and help gauge the condition of the sector, overall. With that in mind, I visited myriad booths and set up a bunch of meetings at the 2016 Solar Power International show, hosted this week in sunny Las Vegas, to find out two main things: What has been the biggest solar story of the year so far, and what’s the next big thing in store for the industry?

During a Q&A session for media members, Interim President Tom Kimbis and a few more execs from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) addressed those two questions. Kimbis started by saying the state of the industry is “very strong,” pointing out that this year’s SPI was the most successful yet (the official headcount is 17,700 attendees).

The biggest story of this year to Kimbis, it seemed, was the continued prosperity of solar and the “speed of acceleration.” He highlighted the findings of the just-released U.S. Solar Market Insight report, which verified 2016 is on track to become yet another record-shattering year for the U.S. sector. According to the study, the second quarter represented the 11th straight quarter during which the nation installed over 1 GW of solar PV.

“[In the past] we would never be talking about getting a gigawatt in a quarter – that would be the goal for an entire year,” said Kimbis. He added it is a “forgone conclusion” that solar will become an increasingly larger player in the U.S. energy landscape and the economy.

Unsurprisingly, Kimbis and the other SEIA reps hailed last year’s extension of the federal investment tax credit (ITC) as a major victory for the industry. SEIA Vice President of Federal Affairs Christopher Mansour said securing such a long-term extension (and a year earlier than the incentive was set to expire, at that) was “unprecedented.”

After I spoke with dozens of solar professionals, from installers to manufacturers, on the SPI exhibition floor, it became clear: SEIA isn’t the only party happy about the ITC extension. For example, representatives from insurance provider Travelers said the ITC extension has already bolstered the company’s renewables business. Peter Wilcox, technical director of Travelers’ inland marine division, commented, “It has been very good on our end; we have underwritten a lot of new solar projects,” and colleague Eileen Kauffman, renewable energy practice lead, emphasized “a lot more.”

Chris Stearns – customer service and technical support specialist for S-5!, which provides attachment solutions for metal rooftop solar projects – suggested that the ITC has positively affected not only solar development, but also the SPI show atmosphere itself. He joked that it seemed like everyone was walking around with a smile on his or her face this year because of the market certainty created by the extension. “People used to be on pins and needles,” said Stearns.

Although most solar stakeholders I surveyed on the show floor cited the continued growth of solar as the main story of this year, some also said that 2016 has been the year of compromise and collaboration with utilities. A slew of power companies across the U.S. attempted to either weaken or completely do away with solar-friendly policies, such as net energy metering (NEM), or impose harmful changes, such as demand charges. Thankfully, not many utilities were successful with their efforts, and better yet, a good number of them worked with solar stakeholders to reach a deal.

Lauren Randall, senior manager of public policy at residential solar company Sunrun, said during an informal meetup at SPI that industry collaboration with utilities has led to some major policy victories throughout the U.S. For example, El Paso Electric recently decided to scrap plans for new demand charges on solar customers – a decision Randall said “keeps control in the hands of consumers.” She also mentioned a major agreement that solar stakeholders and utility Xcel Energy announced in Colorado last month.

Clean Energy Collective (CEC) was one of the parties involved in a separate community solar settlement reached with Xcel earlier this year, and Tim Braun, CEC’s director of public affairs, said during a sit-down at SPI that collaboration with power providers is a “major theme” and “absolutely essential.” Todd Davidson, AVP of marketing at CEC, added, “Forcing your way is not an effective way to work; it’s not good for utilities or customers.”

Utilities and solar advocates in several other states, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Georgia and New York, have also reached positive outcomes by working together. Just this week, in fact, SolarCity, regulators and utility NV Energy in Nevada, which has long been a key NEM battleground state, announcedan agreement to grandfather in existing solar customers under previous, more beneficial NEM rules.

The future
“Solar is anything but static. It is a dynamic technology,” stated Kimbis at the media Q&A session. He said one of SPI’s hottest topics – and, in turn, one of the industry’s fastest-emerging opportunities – is energy storage. Indeed, this year’s exhibition hall had a hefty number of energy storage providers, and a recent report showed that the U.S. energy storage market will have another historic year.

Kirk Stokes, a self-proclaimed “PV geek” in charge of sales at Sharp Electronics’ energy storage systems and services group, confirmed that “there has been a lot of interest, a lot of talk, about storage from the solar industry, and that could lead to education and, ultimately, more deployment.” Education, according to Stokes and other energy storage providers at SPI, is key. The more consumers, installers and utilities know about the benefits of energy storage, the more likely they are willing to embrace it.

If they do choose storage, said Audrey Fogarty, vice president of product management at storage solutions provider Younicos, adopters could save money and “enhance the quality of their solar output,” even when the sun isn’t shining. Dr. Charlie Gay, the newly appointed director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, said energy storage is an important component for the future of solar integration.

Another hurdle to energy storage adoption, however, is pricing. Tabuchi America offers solar inverters with integrated energy storage, and Marketing Manager Mari Gruner called solar companies’ intrigue in storage “encouraging.” Nonetheless, she and other energy storage providers admitted that batteries still need to get cheaper in order to attract even more interest, and they expect the technology to keep getting less expensive while also becoming more advanced.

Separately, Tanuj Deora, the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s (SEPA) executive vice president and chief strategy officer, insisted that energy storage is just another piece of a larger technology puzzle that will lead to the betterment and growth of solar. Deora said the term “solar plus…” encapsulated the future opportunities for PV. And although he acknowledged he didn’t coin the phrase, he explained that in addition to “storage,” what comes after “plus” could (and should) be other smart technologies, such as demand response, smart thermostats and electric vehicles.

Regardless, everyone at the SPI show could agree on at least three things: 1) solar is booming, 2) storage is on its way, and 3) it’s pretty darn hot in Vegas.

Photo credit: Steven Purcell