From the Director – What we learned from Solar Power International

From the Director:

In late September 2018, several of us from NCCETC were fortunate to be able to attend the joint Solar Power International (SPI) / Energy Storage International (ESI) conference in Anaheim, Cali. – the largest solar industry event and one of the largest storage industry events of the year. For me, personally, it is always a great place to catch up with old colleagues that I have known since I first joined the clean energy industry back in the early 1990s, but every year I also meet new people with new perspectives and knowledge that helps me to grow and stay grounded in what is one of the fastest evolving industries on the planet!

This year was especially nice because there was a greater sense of optimism than I have felt in the last few years – no girding for a federal tax credit defense like in 2016 and (in spite of some brand new tariffs recently added to Chinese inverters) no major fear that a tariff fight would lead to a catastrophic fall-off in U.S. solar markets in the coming year. In general, the mood was very positive across everyone I met.

The show is like a small city with over 20,000 attendees and 700 exhibitors, including not only solar equipment and professional services specific to every sector of the market, but also an increasing segment of the program and exhibit hall dedicated to related industries that are rapidly converging with solar to become one new, larger industry – everything from EV infrastructure and batteries, to hydrogen and fuel cells, to microgrids and resiliency technologies, to home automation and “big data” for system management.  

Best of all, the educational programs at the show make a special effort to pull these diverse threads together in various formats to help you begin to visualize where this is all going. This year, I spoke on a panel focused on land use and siting issues with local governments while NCCETC team members had posters on community solar options for the southeast and on an innovative hydrogen fuel cell catalyst being developed here at North Carolina State University.  

The educational sessions are particularly well thought out because of the diversity of the educational planning team (full disclosure – I have served on that team for the last three years and will be serving again in 2019). SPI/ESI is a joint venture of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA – an electric utility-focused educational non-profit), so on various panels you get to see utilities and private sector developers either butting heads or trying to collaborate to figure out the new policies, economics and business models that take best advantage of the ever-decreasing cost and ever-improving applicability of the ever-converging suite of clean energy technologies.  

So, some of the things I saw that are coming in 2019? The clean energy technology convergence will continue, especially with storage and increasingly with EVs. This seems largely driven by discussions of grid resiliency in our region and across the country by new business models that emerge from regulatory changes that make it easier for private developers, electric utilities or (unfortunately, rarely), both. The convergence is enabled by fast moving innovations in power electronics that continue to create technological capabilities with which regulators and utilities are struggling to keep up. Other cool new products included a bunch of greatly improved two-sided PV panels (called “bifacial”) that capture more solar and improve efficiency, floating PV arrays that can be sited on reservoirs and may help reduce land-use conflicts, and a slew of new building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) products that may help in more robust rooftop markets (but probably not around here yet <sigh>).

I always come back recharged from SPI, but this year I came home more enthusiastic than ever about the future of solar energy. Next year the show moves to Salt Lake City – if you can make it, I highly recommend the trip!