America’s Biggest Solar Show ‘Isn’t Just a Solar Show Anymore’

by I'm Struggling
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The defining message of this year’s flagship solar industry show was hard to pin down.

Last year’s Solar Power International kicked off with a full-throated attack on the solar import tariffs that were being finalized at the time. The opening session featured industry heavyweights lobbing sick burns at tariff petitioners Suniva and SolarWorld, like Sunrun’s Ed Fenster saying, “It's a shame that we've got a couple of management teams that want to hold the industry and the planet hostage because they can't accept their own mistakes.”

This year’s conference lacked a single, defined external threat for the industry to rally around. In fact, when we asked attendees on what theme summed up the show, the wide range of answers told us there wasn’t one.

Perhaps that's a good thing. Progress continues. Finally, a year without an existential threat. Instead of facing some market-crushing policy, the national solar industry has found a period of stasis. Companies also continue to branch out into adjacent adjacent technologies, such as energy storage, electric vehicles and home automation.

As Smart Electric Power Alliance president and CEO Julia Hamm put it: “Clearly this isn’t just a solar show anymore.”

The last two years of SPI drew vitality from the showmanship of Las Vegas, an artificial landscape in a desert that testifies to humanity’s ability to turn crazy ideas into reality. Conference-goers plotted the future of the industry in between rollercoaster rides atop skyscrapers and pocketing Benjamins at the nearby craps tables, while the nation’s largest rooftop solar installation soaked up sun above their heads.

SPI’s move to Anaheim situated the show in an artificial landscape dedicated to the celebration of decades-old cartoon characters. If the strip-malled setting inspired anything in SPI goers, it was the banality of monetizing earlier creative breakthroughs.

Greentech Media’s on-the-ground reporters hunted for market trends in the shadows of Disneyland's castle. Here’s what we found.

Tariffs, again

Tariffs were a back-of-mind concern compared to last year, but anti-dumping and countervailing (AD/CVD) duties and Section 201 still weighed on the event. A fresh round of Section 301 tariffs made sure attendees couldn't totally escape the Trump administration — even adjacent to the happiest place on earth.

JD Dillon, vice president of marketing and pricing at Enphase, lamented the uncertainty resulting from the 10 percent tariffs introduced through Section 301.

“There’s been too much ambiguity and uncertainty on what’s going to happen,” Dillon said. “When you get down to it, it’s not a huge impact. But not knowing is worse than knowing.”

SunPower, fresh off its Section 201 exclusion, is also in the midst of assessing the 301 impact, according to Norm Taffe, executive vice president of residential.

“It’s like look to the left and look to the right and see what’s going to hit you,” he said of the lingering tariff anxiety.

The new round of tariffs could hit materials costs across the board, Taffe noted.

“As far as 301, there’s ways that could impact us and I think we’re still trying to understand to what extent,” said Taffe. “If we’re going to build in America, which is kind of what we’ve been asked to do, perfect example: it’s very hard to get glass anywhere but China at that kind of scale.”

REC Silicon, a victim of the AD/CVD duties, said on the show’s sidelines that its imperiled future could clarify in the next couple months. The company said its “chasing everything we can to try to survive.”

Greentech Media confirmed on the show floor that small-time bifacial manufacturer Sunpreme joins the roster of solar players giving in to tariff pressures, with a facility planned for Texas.

Bifurcated views on bifacial

Utility-scale observers were excited to see a proliferation in bifacial modules on display from prominent manufacturers.

Instead of catching sunlight on one side, bifacial panels employ what some marketing materials refer to as an “active rear side,” which catches reflections off the ground and theoretically boosts overall energy production.

Numerous exhibitors showcased bifacial products on the floor — Greentech Media found them at Yingli, Jinko, GCL, Longi and Hanwha Q Cells during a circuit of the Convention Center.

But bifacial hasn’t yet reached hype-cycle status, and opinions about its near-term potential seem bifurcated.

A GCL Solar Energy representative told Greentech Media the company expects spiking interest in the technology. A conversation at the booth of JinkoSolar, which contends it is a front-runner in bifacial technology, suggested greater caution. A rep commented that the industry needs more data to assess just how much energy the active rear side produces, and how it performs on different landscapes with varying degrees of albedo (white sand or snow work particularly well; dirt, less so).

“There’s definitely interest and a lot of buzz,” said Tara Doyle, head of business development and project management at DNV GL, in an interview last month.

Now that many manufacturers make PERC cells, the costs of transitioning to bifacial production have diminished. DNV GL is gearing up for a large study comparing bifacial and mono-facial output with interim results expected next year.

“Now everyone is screaming for bifacial data because they can more or less buy them at the same cost,” said Tristan Erion-Lorico, head of PV module business at DNV GL.

All major suppliers have bifacial products ready to ship, said Jade Jones, senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

“The U.S. market will see more demand for bifacial in 2019, but bifacial products will not account for the majority of module demand yet,” she said. “Bifacial demand will start to pick up more speed in 2020, when modeling for system yields is more refined.”

Buzzword resilience

Last year’s SPI rolled into Las Vegas just a few weeks after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on U.S. coastal areas like Houston and just before Hurricane Maria laid out Puerto Rico’s entire grid. In the intervening months resilience evolved into a full-blown buzzword.

That’s an opportunity for an industry that’s shown what it can do in a storm, with solar and batteries up-and-running soon after extreme weather while utility lines remain a mangled mess.

Conference organizers SEPA and the Solar Energy Industries Association filled out the show with panels on resilient tech, solar and storage in disasters and an entire “Microgrid Marketplace” section of the floor. Exhibitors also seized on the interest, talking up the possibilities of off-grid and backup solutions tied to their products.

SEPA's Hamm also highlighted a new “pathways” strategy for the organization that focuses on five “intertwined” areas it sees as the energy industry’s future. Resilience gets top treatment along with regulatory innovation, utility business models, DER integration and electrification of transportation.

Ever-increasing disasters ensure resilience will remain a hot topic looking ahead. And solar’s increasing interest in playing nice with other tech — like storage — only reinforces the trend.

Storage et. al

This year's floor was swarming with even more storage, vehicle and adjacent technology entrepreneurs than years past. Click here to read Greentech Media's piece on the most exciting products introduced. 

“There are a lot of opportunities for people who are here to begin to look for partnerships with new types of companies that they had not been engaging with before; it’s not just the solar-to-solar business connections anymore,” said Hamm. “That’s the exciting opportunity for me, is [for] the solar industry as it matures to begin to become a true piece of a broader industry.”

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