Intersolar: Finding the construction heart, technology soul of solar

Navigant Consulting’s Paula Mints opines on the number and frequency of solar shows, and why that’s a good thing. She also reviews last week’s Intersolar North America show, with updates on PV efforts across several geographic regions.

by Paula Mints, Navigant Consulting

July 21, 2010 – Face it: There are quite a few conferences in the solar industry, and the run-up to the big events can seem like a gauntlet to prospective attendees. The acknowledged scientific conference leaders — the Photovoltaic Specialist Conferences, the IEEE PVSEC, the EU PVSEC, and the Asia PVSEC — used to rotate about every 18 months. Rarely was there more than one scientific conference in a year. Now each are yearly, and technology just does not advance fast enough to offer a breakthrough at each of these events. This is not as significant as it may seem — the PVSECs have always been about progress over time, from university through to commercialization. The PVSECs are where you get an idea of what is coming in the future so you can monitor it.

Intersolar began as a tradeshow, and added conference sessions first in Germany, then the US, and now China and India. The Solar Power annual conference series (SEPA) is now one of the most successful business conferences in the world, drawing thousands of participants (exhibitors and speakers) from all points on the solar value chain. There are many other conferences, of course, sponsored by various private organizations (Photon, Thin Film Today, etc.), along those sponsored by nonprofit organizations such as ACORE and ASES. You can find a conference, webinar, tradeshow, executive panel, lecture series — or just a group of people presenting papers in public — on any subject, anytime, anywhere in the world.

Click to EnlargeAll of this conferencing is not new. Many of the conferences date back to the days when the solar industry was much smaller (<100MWp). There are always, of course, conferences with low attendance, and even some that keep attendance low to ensure high audience participation during the sessions.

Overcapacity of conferences may seem like a bad thing; the technologies change very little in a given year, and are based on iterative development processes. But attendance — or, to use a manufacturing term, utilization — is still high, meaning lots of people pay to come. And as the business side of the industry has been upended in just the last few years, there is plenty to say.

Considering PV (putting aside for a moment CPV, CSP, and solar hot water heating), 2004 was the first year that the PV industry sold >1GWp. The five-year compound annual growth rate for the PV industry from 2004-2009 was 50%. In 2003, 675MWp was shipped to the first point of sale in the market. In 2009, 7.9GWp was shipped, bought, and has been installed. The multi-megawatt “utility-scale” installations that began to take market share in 2004, now dominate. With these extremely large systems came a focus on bankability (and all that implies) on the technology (thin films and c-Si), through to the EPC contractor. The need for the EPC contractor is somewhat new to the PV industry, and with this requirement have come new entrants who know how to build conventional energy turnkey utility installations, absorb risk, and turn over the keys at a price in the end to an investor group. Suddenly, contractors with names like Bechtel and Chevron are finding solar an interesting way to generate revenue.

Granted, solar is a construction business at its heart, and a technology business at its soul. But seemingly overnight it all got serious. The industry changed rapidly, from the size and scope of installations to new entities intent on buying and selling electricity. Add to this the traditional swooping up and down of prices, along with the inherent instability of operating in an incentive driven market. Right now the traditional industry along with a host of new stakeholders is on a steep learning curve. So, since everyone is learning at once, all of this talking at conferences may be a very good thing indeed.

Intersolar NA: Region-by-region

The week of July 12-15 is now the annual stomping time-of-year for Intersolar North America, with the conference held at the Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco and the exhibit held at the Moscone West Exhibit Hall. San Francisco is always a good venue for a great PV industry party (as there always are at PV conferences), and Moscone Center has solar electric system of its own: an >800kWp PowerLight system installed in 2004. Exhibits were heavily dominated by manufacturers and other entities from the Asia region. Some companies were (notably) not exhibiting: First Solar, SunPower, Suntech, Sharp, Q-Cells, Uni-Solar, and Kyocera.

Highlights from the conference include updates from various global markets. Gerhard Stryi-Hipp, Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, offered an update on incentives for solar in France, noting that the highly aesthetic category of BIPV in France (which receives a higher tariff) will be eased in 2011, and most BIPV will be in the simplified category. In France, simplified BIPV is defined as part of the roof and in the plane of the roof, not including retrofit (traditional mounting). Civil code 1792 covers BIPV in France, and all BIPV systems must be guaranteed for 10 years to receive the tariff.

Julia Curtis, BP government relations, gave an update on the market for PV in Italy, with expectations of 1.5GWp in 2010. The current cap on the market in Italy is 3GWp; however, after the cap is reached, installations can continue and will be eligible for the tariff for fourteen months. Premiums are offered for systems that replace asbestos roofs. She noted that obstacles to stronger growth of PV in Italy include the national grid and administrative hurdles (multiple steps must be successfully completed to receive the tariff).

Vicente Salas, Laboratorio de Sistemas Fotovoltaicos, Departamento de Tecnologia Electronica, gave an update on the market in Spain for PV systems. Unsurprisingly, he remarked, due to quality problems with installed systems, audits of installed systems have begun. He also noted that the current Royal Decree changes in September.

Izumi Kaizuka, senior manager at RTS Corp. in Japan, offered a valuable update on the market in Japan. Currently, Japan has a target of 28GWp of installed solar by 2020, which doubles Japan’s original goal of 14GWp. To achieve this goal, the budget in support of solar in Japan has also doubled. Japan expects a market size of 800MWp in 2010.

Frank Haugwitz, freelance consultant and also, Solar Promotion/Intersolar, gave a presentation on China’s plans for solar, as a market and as a technology provider. Currently, 12GWp of projects have been announced by 2013, though it is highly unlikely that most of these will actually be installed. He noted that the government in Beijing is not interested in a national feed-in tariff, instead preferring a tender process which it considers the best choice to control costs. The government also favors a return of investment of ≤6% and no more, and wants to avoid an overheated market, such as that of Spain.

However, China — which recently passed the US in energy consumption — does not want to rely on imports. The country’s Renewable Energy Promotion Law was amended in April of this year, setting a new target of 15% energy production by non-fossil sources by 2020; in May it set an unofficial target of 20GWp of PV by 2020. China’s “mandated market share” (MMS) requires local utilities to have 3% power capacity by non-hydro renewable energy by 2010, increasing to 8% by 2020. In 2009, a surcharge of RMB 0.004/kWh was levied on all electricity bills to fund the country’s move to using more renewables in its energy mix. Currently the PV industry in China is export-driven, and is privately owned and profitable.

Despite significant caveats, the market in China is growing stronger. Haugwitz estimated the market size in 2010 at 300MWp, with ~600MWp of systems under construction currently.

Paula Mints is principal analyst, PV Services Program, and associate director in the energy practice at Navigant Consulting. E-mail:

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