Asset Management, Grid Scale, O&M, Solar

Notes from the Solar Underground: Conferences, Conferences Everywhere

Considering its relatively small size, the solar industry has always had too many conferences. Most conferences are highly subjective and trend driven.

Almost all solar conferences exist in a protective bubble, wherein success and progress are celebrated while the bigger and still quite powerful world of conventional energy is ignored. It is healthy to include a dose of reality in the celebration — though, maybe not as much fun. Conferences would be better balanced and attendees better prepared if presentations and discussions about the imbalance in funding and deployment between conventional energy and renewables became a bigger part of the conference discussion. An analogy from sports: You have to watch the game film from the other team in order to prepare to beat them on the court.

Scientific conferences, such as the IEEE PVSC and its sister conferences in Asia and Europe have a technical focus and include some market sessions for balance. The scientific conferences focus on the technical aspects of deployment. Attending at least one scientific conference a year can help industry participants align with research directions and with the reality that research takes a lot of time, effort and money. As John Oliver, comedian, said: “Research is a slow, rigorous process that does not lend itself to sweeping conclusions.”

Other large conferences attempt to walk a line between technical and business offerings. It should be clearly understood that the level of technical presentation at the other conferences (SPI, Intersolar for example) is not the same as at the scientific conferences. In fact, the word technical is used differently at these other conferences in comparison to the way it is used at the IEEE or the EU PVSEC. For example, at Intersolar there is a crystalline session where commercial manufacturers and analysts present. At SPI a technical session would be about inverters or battery technologies where commercial entities would present. At the IEEE a technical session is one where progress in the lab, pilot scale or field is discussed in depth.

There is a real and really important difference in the way technology is discussed at a scientific conference and in the way it is discussed at other (business) conferences.

Some current trends in conference offerings are troubling.

  • Trendy Conferences: There are simply too many O&M (asset management) and storage/battery conferences these days to count. First, the same speakers tend to speak at all the same conferences. Second, there are only so many credible players in these fields. Third, there is only so much you can say on these subjects.
  • Pay for Play: Unfortunately, conferences that charge speakers a fee for podium time are all too common. Nonprofit scientific conferences charge for attendance. This is different from charging speakers for podium time for a very good reason — the minute you do so the conference has an inherent bias.
  • Conference committee bias: This is difficult to avoid even with scientific conferences. Unfortunately, in many cases the sessions at conferences reflect what the committee thinks is important and thus misses nuance. Potentially more important, these conferences tend to highlight the popular and ignore technology or business directions that have yet to gain traction.

All conferences include a fair number of announcements. Beware of announcements of the size of the solar industry as they almost always homogenize publically available data to arrive at a result with which the announcing organization agrees. Sifting through announcements to find the kernel of truth therein can be unsatisfying. As a reminder:

  • Announcements about cell/module shipments often ignore outsourcing and inventory and are assumed to have a one-to-one correlation to installations, which are assumed to be synonymous with grid connections. Oversizing the industry makes it very difficult to know what is really going on and thus develop a cogent strategy.
  • Announcements about industry size are often made to call attention to the media outlet or to an organization and they are being made earlier and earlier — remember, research is a slow, rigorous process that does not lend itself to sweeping announcements.
  • Announcements are made for many reasons — to call attention to something, to take attention away from something and occasionally, to announce something of real merit.

Sadly, and certainly not simply in the U.S., solar conferences are better funded than the solar industry itself. Table 1 offers the DoE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy budget request for 2017. EERE budget requests and appropriations for 2015 and 2016 are offered as points of comparison.  

Table 1: DoE Fiscal Year 2017 EERE Budget Request*

* http://www5.eere.energy.gov/office_eere/program_budget_formulation.php

Ignore Natural Gas at Your Own Risk

Solar conference planners face a conundrum — to ignore the dominance of conventional energy and nuclear technologies or face it head on and observe electricity generation by technology side by side on charts. Doing so will make clear that on one hand, deployment of solar is accelerating while on the other hand, natural gas is cheap, electricity generated by natural gas dominates in many countries and nuclear energy is favored by many countries. Renewable Energy World/Power Generation Week includes all the kids on the energy playground — from natural gas through all the renewables.

Presenting information that celebrates accelerated growth of the solar industry on its own and out of context ignores the well-funded and dominant competition, the need (and fact of) continued subsidization, unprofitability of projects and manufacturers and boom/bust market behavior. Renewable Energy World/Power Generation Week is a venue where the dominance of conventional energy technologies is impossible to ignore. Granted reality checks tend to be fun-free, but a firm grip on reality is necessary to continue working towards stronger and more profitable deployment of solar technologies. Figure 1 offers technology shares of U.S. electricity generation for 2015.

Figure 1: US 2015 Electricity Generation Million kWh by Technology*

* http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/index.cfm#electricity

The U.S., and concerns about unintended consequences aside, is still experiencing a boom in natural gas production. As with most booms, this was very good for those who got in on the beginning and is currently not-so-good for the late comers who are finding that cheap natural gas is not necessarily profitable natural gas. Ironically, unprofitability is one thing that many in fracking for natural gas and those in the solar industry now have in common.

Natural gas is the second pillar on the EPA/Obama Clean Power Plan and will remain popular whether or not the Clean Power Plan survives its trip through the judicial system. Natural gas cannot be ignored. Figure 2 offers natural gas prices per million/BTU to the Henry Hub from June 2015 to June 2016. These are not prices that consumers pay.

Figure 2: Henry Hub Natural Gas Prices per Million/BTU

In 2005, natural gas to the Henry Hub was close to $9.00. The 2015 average price to the Henry Hub was $2.63. Figure 3 offers historic to present natural gas prices from 2005 through 2015.

Figure 3: Henry Hub Natural Gas Average Prices per Million/BTU, 2005 to 2015

Lead image credit: Max D | Flickr


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