The solar industry has made a strong transition into its next phase — aptly dubbed Solar 2.0 — as it makes its comeback faster than technology companies were able to recover from the dot-com bubble in the late ‘90s. Since late 2010, general media outlets have claimed that the sky is falling. However, with solar stocks up and a growing demand in emerging markets like China and Japan, the temporary industry downturn has proven to be merely a result of the natural consolidation and evolution that take place in any maturing market.
Last month’s Solar Power International (SPI), the U.S. industry’s flagship event, proved to be a good indicator of the optimism about the industry. Leading up to late October when SPI took place in Chicago, many said that the show was in a slow decline since leaving California and that the event’s organizers — the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) — couldn’t get back to solar friendly confines of the west coast fast enough. But I think those who doubted the health of the event and importance of its location had prematurely written off a major turning point (for the better) in the industry.
Here are four reasons why SPI 2013 was a success and why I believe 2014 in Las Vegas will be even better:
- Exhibitor Health & Credibility: From about 2006 to 2010, solar was in a bubble, benefitting from record investment, record growth, and record policy support from the government. And while all of the money, incentives, and interest definitely helped solar become more mainstream, there were very few companies equipped to handle the fast-growing demand resulting in some bad companies and bad service, which didn’t reflect well on the industry. Today, incentives and investment are at more sensible levels, and the customers are much savvier — meaning that the companies left standing are, in general, more reputable companies with healthy balance sheets. This might mean that there are a few smaller booths and less companies exhibiting than at SPI’s peak, but the industry is better for it.
- More Qualified Attendees: When solar was in the midst of its bubble period, the attendee profile of SPI and other industry events was as diverse as any you will see this side of CES. The event obviously attracted lots of vendors, suppliers, and some commercial and utility customers, but you also had a much higher percentage of curiosity onlookers who weren’t there with any serious business intent. Today, with the proliferation of online resources and residential solar marketing, there are other places for the curious to get their questions answered, leaving the event as the venue where highly qualified attendees congregate to do business. It might result in slightly smaller crowds, but the percentage of quality attendees in 2013 from a business perspective is much higher.
- Emerging Market Location: It’s rare that the Windy City would ever be called an emerging market, but from a solar perspective, Illinois barely registers on the radar as a center of solar activity. Many pointed to this as an example of why SPI should have stayed in California: it is the one state where you can almost guarantee an ongoing high level of local interest due to the huge number of vendors, progressive state policy, and high adoption rate. But for the future growth of the market, it is critical that the industry’s flagship event helps its exhibitors and partners break into new regions and educate a new potential customer base on the economic benefits of going solar. If we’re an industry that only preaches to the converted, then we will stunt the growth opportunity in front of us. Chicago was a good venue, and Nevada is fertile ground for growth in 2014.
- Record Solar Growth in U.S. Installations: Adoption is at an all-time high, and more and more states are coming online with programs aimed at attracting solar project development. According to Greentech Media Research and SEIA's most recent quarterly report, the U.S. installed 832 MW in Q2 2013, a 15 percent growth over Q1 2013. The report projects a 30 percent growth rate in installs from 2012, and this represents an expected 4.4 GW of PV to come online, compared to 3.3 GW in 2012. Also, some tangential policy programs — including the proposed energy storage mandate by the California Public Utilities Commission — could lead to even more solar penetration and the development of energy storage systems that could change the economics of solar even more.
It’s easy to look at a market or an event and lament everything that is less than ideal. However, I am a firm believer that the future of solar has never been brighter and that those who attended Solar Power International in Chicago last month walked away with the same conclusion.
Lead image: Solar panels via Shutterstock