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The First Solar Energy Top Ten List of Things to Remember as We Exit 2013

Starting in late December and continuing through Q1 2014, top ten lists will begin popping up — top ten manufacturers, top ten markets, top ten this, top ten that, top ten mistakes not to make ever again, top ten success stories to be emulated until we all want to scream, top ten losers, top ten winners, top ten conferences. In sum, there is a top ten list for pretty much everything that happened in 2013 as well as a few for the top ten things to expect in 2014. Thusly, here is the first (or just one of many) top ten list of things to remember in solar as we begin to exit 2013:

  1. An industry with most of its manufacturing in one country is stifling more innovation than it encourages.  Right now students in universities who just might have that joyous spark of insight that ignites innovation and engenders a leap forward for the solar industry are being told “there is no money or future in manufacturing, all technology manufacturing is in Asia now.”
  2. Thin films are not dead and there is still progress in old lady wafer yet — remember, several years ago crystalline was dead, now thin films are dead, in a few years crystalline may well be dead again — meanwhile, students in universities who just might have that joyous spark of insight that ignites innovation and engenders a leap forward for the solar industry are being told “forget CIGS, CIS, a-Si, CdTe, c-Si, OPV, CSP, CPV and dye sensitized. Unless you can make it for less than a quarter, it hasn’t got a chance.”
  3. Let’s put to rest the unhelpful belief that a PV installation is a commodity.  Electricity is a commodity, a photovoltaic system is not a commodity and nor is a solar panel.   A PV system is the means of energy production and once installed, it helps its owner control energy costs and teaches the surrounding community a valuable lesson about energy independence as well as about how technology improves everyday lives.  The closer to the load solar gets — that is, to the customer — the more the reality of energy independence inspires business models and the technology developers of tomorrow to imagine and create.  Independence will never be commoditized.  
  4. Watch out for fads as they are innovation killers.  Fads are not trends and fads do not last (though just like hem lines, they tend to come and go).  Trends develop overtime.  A short term trend is a fad.  An example from a few years ago was: Crystalline is the old technology and it is the past.  Another example: Form factors other than the good old rectangle that defy the laws of physics (and are no longer in production).  Another example: utility scale solar is the future, distributed generation (DG) is dead.  Another example: off grid solar does not matter, grid connected is the future of solar.  Another example brought about by the end of the FiT era and current low incentive environment: It was all about money for the past few years, now we can get back to our roots. To the last, come on, there is nothing wrong with making enough money to pay employees better, invest in R&D and quality control all while inspiring innovation and serving the goal of ameliorating climate change. One last thing, the trend to financing companies with debt (solar bonds so to speak), may look intriguing now, but, many a financial instrument has turned around to bite the hand that fed it.
  5. Stop selling free or cheap — once installed solar installations control energy costs over a very long period of time.  Stop educating the energy buying public to believe that independence and reliability have no value — no luxury item manufacturer would undercharge for their product. Instead, they’d stick a logo on it and hike up the price a bit more.
  6. Solar leases are very popular and this model does encourage people to consider solar — but the model is flawed so let’s mature it.  First, standardize the contract escalation costs (which are very confusing to end users) and base them on the costs of the solar system as well as on the desired margin. Concerning this, there is gathering momentum among utilities to add a per kWp service charge for PV system access to the grid. Finally, a strong attack on net metering would change the DG dynamic significantly and thus the economics. Net metering and access charges are the escalation charges to be concerned about in the future, prepare now.
  7. Energy storage: All the rage and not quite ready for wide deployment, particularly in terms of cost. Let’s not hold this emerging technology to the goal of being ever cheaper, we all know how this ends.  After all, the value of self-sufficiency — not needing the utility grid to store electricity — now…utility grid as back up storage, that’s empowering.
  8. Access charges deserve a place on the list.  US and globally, utility charges to connect, with APS and California as examples (though there are global examples) — seriously, if you are surprised at this, well, no comment.  Solar deployment is increasing and where net metering is in place or self-consumption is encouraged utility profit margins are feeling the pinch.  Charges to connect were always in the cards and we should have been prepared.
  9. Community solar: A very good idea just beginning to gain momentum.  Not everyone owns a single family dwelling and for multi-unit dwellings, owning a solar installation has not been possible. PV is the best renewable distributed generation technology, finding a way for communities to take part will accelerate deployment.   Community solar teaches the value of energy independence encourages a new generation of solar technology developers and engages utilities to work with solar industry participants.  Installing PV on low income housing improves the lives of everyone in the community — grass roots movements can and do foment change. 
  10. Remember that announcements are not data and PR is used for a variety of reasons including: calling attention to something worthy of attention, to divert attention from something else, to legitimize something, to announce a new product available for sale, to re-announce availability of a product that is not selling and to correct mistakes, along with many other reasons.  In PV, announcements of champion cell/module results are often taken to mean that the achievement is currently commercial, instead of a as a report of progress in research.

The feed in tariff incentive model drove photovoltaic industry deployment to multi-gigawatt levels and encouraged the entrance of new players.  Many of these new players believed — as did most of the industry — that the FiT model was the future of solar. The early profitability of this model drove the multi-megawatt (utility scale) installation sector.  Many of those who entered during these times left stunned when retroactive changes and underbidding (as well as underpricing) erased profits almost overnight.  So, for an official number eleven: incentives and subsidies for solar always change over time. 

Also, and this applies to everything including the lease model, today’s darling will almost always disappoint eventually.  Solar is progress and is crucial in the battle against climate change; remember, enthusiasm is great but perseverance, hard work and steady progress will keep an industry going when enthusiasm wanes.  Just as incentives come and go, enthusiasm waxes and wanes.

And Now a Word about Climate Change

Climate change, with a lot of help from humankind, is altering the ecosystem that we are all a part of — sometimes accidentally, sometimes blindly and sometimes by excusing polluting behaviors as necessary.  Bluntly, if you are not a part of the climate change solution, you are the problem – solar is a key part of the solution.  The fight to deploy solar requires old fashioned guts and is often gut wrenching.  Nonetheless, there is no better fight to engage in than the one against those who argue that we have time to make an impact. 

And this calls for 12.  Remember that the real goals are energy independence (from polluting sources), energy security (against escalating prices), and ameliorating climate change.

Lead image: Top 10 chalkboard via Shutterstock

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