SolarTown attended the GW Solar Institute’s Fifth Annual Symposium. The theme of the symposium was “Going Global,” although the panel that we attended was more of a celebration of solar’s arrival on the world stage. Since the discussion had the feel of preaching to the choir, one solar advocate in the audience suggested that the Institute should have invited a few more skeptics to generate more lively discussion.
Representatives of three powerhouses in the solar industry participated in the panel discussion. They represented the survivors in an industry that has seen considerable consolidation—meaning that a lot of companies have lost their shirts betting on solar. Some have sold their solar divisions, others have filed for bankruptcy. Survivors in the industry shakeout see opportunity. Tom Starrs was on the panel from SunPower Corporation; Kathleen Weiss, from First Solar, and Steven O’Rourke from MEMC. The panelists did not see the recent upheaval in the solar industry as anything “unnatural.” The industry is still at its infancy, and the recent industry shakeout is part of a natural business cycle.
Starrs mentioned that large companies see opportunity in replacing or supplementing utility scale with solar energy. He also suggested that there was good opportunity in distributed solar. He argued that PV could be a competitive threat to utilities, but the goal should be how to integrate solar with other energy sources to provide highly reliable power to the public. Fossil fuels are not going to go away, but we will see renewable sources on a grander scale in the years to come, and we are in the early stages of a massive transition.
Previous years at the symposium had given little attention to the theme of rural electrification, an issue that is near and dear to our heart at SolarTown. You are not going to see SolarTown hawking solar panels in Chad any time soon, but the panelists described how their companies view great opportunity in India, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, which together represent a majority of the estimated 1.4 billion people that are without electricity. O’Rourke described a small 15 kW microgrid that was installed in an Indian village that had been without electricity before. The technology is not an issue but how to adapt solar technology to rural electrification goals is a work in progress. For example, security is a major issue and in poor areas, copper wiring used in the installation could disappear quickly.
There have been two major barriers to solar, cost and intermittency. The cost for solar energy has still come way down and even with the cost of panels stabilizing, other costs particularly soft costs such as permitting will come down. Solar intermittency is a tougher nut to crack. When the sun is high in the sky, solar panels produce electricity, but when the sun goes down, they don’t. Energy storage is still in its formative stages, and much more work needs to be done in this area.
The panelists agreed with what we have said on these SolarTown pages many times over that the fits and starts of incentives is no way to build an industry. There has not been a long term federal policy on renewable energy, which has left states, utilities and local governments to create a checkerboard of incentives, that some days are available, and some days are not. One of the panelists argued that incentives that come and go and in some ways worse than no incentives at all—and for large companies that need to plan long-term strategy, predictability is critical. The panelists agreed that stand-alone viability is the goal and that incentives are an aid to get to that point.
Solar still comprises less than 1% of the energy production in the U.S., despite huge growth in the industry. The opportunity lies ahead for those companies that survive.