The industry in California feels like it's in the doldrums - a frustrating sailing condition where light and variable winds blow on and off from one direction then another. It's impossible to progress. You simply have to wait it out.
In this economic climate several major solar companies had to contract, merge, or be purchased in order to stay in business. Not losing ground (e.g. staff attrition, market share, financing options) represented excellent progress.
As we're waiting for some strong economic breezes to take hold, it's a good time to address some of the big-ticket issues that may decide our course in the future. Perhaps your state has already jumped the cue and addressed these issues?
- Energy Efficiency First vs. Size to Post-EE Load
- California energy policy puts energy efficiency and demand-side management first, renewable generation second. Our energy efficiency programs and global warming regulations show the government is serious. What was once a token online energy audit may become a mandatory on-site review (more jobs-yeah!, more cost-boo!), and a prescription for merging efficiency and renewable projects into one.
- Economists and conservationists repeat energy Efficiency First!, but how practical is that if you want to install "a million solar roofs"? Should the policy be "Energy Efficiency...Eventually"? Or, will every solar company have to become an "energy company" to survive? ::continue::
- Streamlined and Corporate or Little Guys and Distributed?
- Smaller companies installing mainly off-grid solar PV and solar water heaters built the solar industry bedrock. And, many of us latecomer activists came to the table with visions of "a million solar roofs" and complete community empowerment through on-site solar production. But one-off projects are inefficient, more expensive, and complicated to incentivize and regulate compared to multi-megawatt plants. It's taken California 8 years to install just 60,000 grid-tied PV systems - a million seems far away.
- Can solar equipment become standard on all new buildings and a 'must have' retrofit project for every building owner if the providers remain so fragmented? Will the roofers, electricians, HVAC contractors, plumbers, framers, all adopt a universal "solar contractor" license that goes across state lines to allow for quality and efficiency? Or, will utilities see an opportunity to own the generation on all the roofs and install on-site solar as they're replacing your old meter with the new smart grid version?
- So much training, so little job growth
- The stimulus bill is investing hundreds of millions toward training new solar installers, but what are they spending to market solar technology, remove barriers, and generate demand? The Solar ABCs project and Solar America Cities is a good start, but fairly small compared to the need.
- We need a Got Solar?, Solar: It's the other energy option, You're in Good Hands with the Sun, etc..... campaign - and pronto. Solar Fred has written about this need for strong marketing, and the non-profit group Smart Power has demonstrated some really creative messages. Will consumers begin to adopt solar just because its finally available? What kind of information do they need to make the investment?
These are just a few of the macro questions that make the solar market waters feel kinda choppy these days.
However, when you listen to folks from other states you'd think there's a heavy wind blowing and skies are clear. Conferences this year (i.e. Solar Power International, New Ideas in Educating a Workforce in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Conference, and Renewable Energy World North America) seemed full of excited, enthusiastic, and full-speed-ahead entrepreneurs. Maybe the rapid growth and new energy from other states will shine some light on our path out of murky waters here in the Golden State.
Liz Merry owns Verve Solar Consulting, through which she teaches (Solar Industry Orientation (tm) and Solar Careers and Opportunities (tm)) seminars, writes solar business curriculum, and consults for new solar businesses. Liz's latest cool-solar-resources and opinions can be found at SolarToday.org/Liz and at VerveSol on Twitter.
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