Solar Power International Conference – Successes and Challenges

The Solar Power International (SPI) Conference was held in Anaheim, CA from September 14-17. Billed as the largest solar trade show in the nation, SPI had approximately 15,000 attendees and over 600 exhibitors. The solar power industry has had two outstanding years in 2014 and to date in 2015, and the conference reflected the energy and excitement of  a vibrant and growing industry. Walking around in the exhibit hall, one could definitely feel the energy both from the attendees and exhibitors.   For anyone who hadn’t been exposed to what happens behind-the-scenes to convert sunlight into electricity, the show would have been an eye-opener. From the tiniest electrical switch or solar photo-voltaic cell manufacturers, to product distributors  and installers, to technology integrators, to engineering and construction companies, to financial institutions, to industry advocacy groups and support organizations, the range of products and number of companies and individuals are truly impressive. Although the mood of the conference was definitely upbeat, it was clear, when you dug a bit deeper, that the industry has a number of significant challenges ahead.

Before hitting the challenges, let’s touch on a couple of key highlights… A late addition to the program was Vice President Biden, who addressed an audience of approximately 4,000 at the Wednesday general assembly and became the first sitting executive to ever speak at a solar power conference. The Vice President spoke knowledgeably and passionately about renewable energy and emphasized the dramatic successes to date as evidenced by the approximately 50% drop in solar cost from 2010 and significant growth of new power generation in the US from renewables over the past few years. However, he also cautioned that there are strong forces pushing back against the administration’s policies in an attempt to protect their special interests. He called out utilities and other fossil fuel interest groups which are fighting against extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar investment and the the practice of net metering.

The Vice-President also highlighted the announcement from the US Department of Energy (DOE) regarding more than $102 million in additional funding in new solar projects  to support American leadership in clean energy innovation. More than $52 million will support 22 new projects that aim to make solar energy more affordable and accessible across the nation, and another 50 million is targeted to advance solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. Part of the announcement concerned the selection of the 5 teams that will compete for the DOE’s SunShot Prize: Race to 7-Day Solar. This competition offers $10 million in cash awards to the best teams that bring process certainty and reduce the permit to plug-in time from current durations to a swift seven days for small PV systems (≤100 kW) or seven weeks for large systems (≤1 MW). SunShot will provide seed funding to help support the teams during an 18-month performance period.

Watch Vice-President’s Speech on YouTube.

Read the DOE SunShot Prize: Race to 7-Day Solar.

It was clear that the expiration of the ITC  was the dark cloud hanging above everyone’s head. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) presented the results of an independent analysis they had commissioned from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) to analyze the impact of the ITC on the industry and what the U.S. stands to lose if Congress lets this policy expire in 2016. Under existing policy, BNEF expects the US to add 54GW of new capacity between 2015 and 2022 (6.8GW/year) – a nearly three-fold increase over the 19GW built through 2014.  A 5-year ITC extension would add an additional 22GW for a total new solar capacity of over 76GW . Most disconcerting is that the existing policy will result in the industry dropping off the cliff in 2017, with only about 25% of the 2016 generation added in 2017. The industry doesn’t recover to 2015 levels until 2020.

See Bloomberg Study on ITC


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