Guest Post: Solar Power International 2011 Review

SPI 2011 lived up to the reputation of its host city, Dallas, Texas. It was bigger than any previous SPI, as everything in the Lone Star State is reputed to be.  

After riding the SPI Dallas rollercoaster for three days and nights, it was apparent that:

  • Module and technology companies aren’t going down without a fight, and
  • The industry is counting on the consistent and balanced growth of the U.S. market to offset the volatility of EU countries and the insular nature of emerging markets in Asia. 

On the technology side, it was interesting to see how module companies are packaging balance-of-system components like distributed electronics and integrated racking into their offerings in order to differentiate themselves and add value to downstream clients. Offering packaged solutions is not unlike energy services companies (ESCOs) offering lighting and cooling upgrades with PV system solutions. Historically, ESCOs could blend low-margin PV with high-margin utility and energy upgrades, sell higher dollar-value projects and blend the less sexy but effective benefits of upgrades with sexy (and lower-value) benefits of PV systems.

Module companies like Sanyo and Sharp Solar marketed innovative turnkey solutions for “packaged products plus project finance” and “packaged products plus extended warranties” in an attempt to offer more value to their clients. An integrator friend is thrilled that Sharp, for example, is offering 25-year warranty coverage on a package including their solar module outfitted with an Enphase inverter. In his words, Sharp’s guarantee allows him to take a calculated risk by offering microinverters to his established client base.

Several German module companies shook off the blues of the 2011 price free-fall to offer some great new products at SPI. Solon’s new commercial rooftop system combines a SPWR T5-like fiber and polymer based rack with a Solon frameless larger format module to offer industry-leading energy density for less than 2.8 lbs/ft2 . Solon partnered up with Andersen Windows, an American company with more than 100 years designing weatherproof products, to jointly develop the product. Schott Solar marketed a lightweight 280-watt module with 60 percent weight reduction relative to standard large format C-Si modules. I appreciated both of these companies’ efforts to show their clients some competitive value and technological differentiation relative to Asian-based manufacturers, as opposed to just complaining about them.

In addition to distributed electronics, tracker products were also prominently on display at this show. The influx of new tracker products is an interesting trend in the industry, given that module prices have dipped so low. Is it more cost effective to simply add more PV to a ground-mounted PV project to gain additional kilowatt-hours, as opposed to adding a costly tracker? Apparently the market research that Unirac, Youil, PV Hardware and SunPower (C7) have done says that it's not.

Array Technologies, the industry one-axis leader, was noticeably absent from the exhibition floor. Each of the new one-axis offerings tweaked the design aspects of the old and established firms, ATI and SunPower, which have dominated this sector since its inception. Fewer but deeper foundations, smaller but more numerous motors, I beams and not tube steel, hydraulics and not electrically powered…the changes go on and on. 

Could there be a more appropriate sign of the times than an SPI exhibition booth by our industry’s King Kong? Years past had me sneering in jealousy and contempt at elevator co-patrons displaying invites to the exclusive evening party hosted by the elusive First Solar [King Kong got taken down a notch in the stock market on Tuesday -- ed.]. My take was that First Solar never has had to reduce itself to the tedium of competing on the SPI exhibition floor with the rest of the industry. They simply didn’t need to generate the business. Yet for 2011, they were there in full swing with suits, smiles and calculators in hand. Taking it to the streets, I suppose, a few years behind SunPower’s full-press marketing campaigns.

Much of my contemplative time, waiting in lines at Starbucks or loading onto the shuttle bus, was spent considering how contracted SPI 2012 would feel as a comparison. There simply can’t be as many faceless companies out there slinging polycrystalline modules as were there this year. When will the rations keeping fringe technologies like HCPV, CSP and a-Si simply run out, leaving them with no direction — private or public — to turn to for more funding? How much consolidation in the inverter industry, with major players like Delta Electronics swooping in with a product offering for each and every market sector, can be expected? What is the evolution of CIS and CIGS with the seemingly ever-present downward pressure of polycrystalline? Could China and Japan evolve into large enough markets to beat back the oversupply issue within a year? So much to consider and only 360 days left until we know.

Here are the big questions for the solar industry's crystal ball-gazers:

  • Will the federal ITC be alive through its intended deadline of 2016?
  • Will solar PV compete with fossil fuel pricing by 2015?
  • Will the U.S. be the largest global PV market by 2018?

***

Stephen Smith is Principal of Solvida Energy Group, a firm providing a suite of products and professional services catered to the large-scale solar industry including financial modeling, design engineering, project development support and technical due diligence. Solvida is currently working on projects in South America, Asia and the U.S.


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