Balance-of-system takes center stage at SPI

eIQ Energy exec Jerry Cutini reports from the Solar Power International show floor, where he says much of the attention seems to have shifted from panel makers to balance-of-system suppliers, and developer activity is heating up thanks to cost reductions.

by Jerry Cutini, CEO, eIQ Energy

October 18, 2011 – The crowds seemed a bit lighter on the first day of this week’s Solar Power International (SPI) show than at last years’ event in Los Angeles. But there was still plenty of activity and Texas-style enthusiasm to be found here at the Dallas Convention Center, including a significant number of customers looking to develop commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

I may not be completely objective, but I couldn’t help sensing that a lot of industry activity and attention has shifted from the panel makers to the balance of system (BOS) makers.

Many of the BOS vendors’ booths that I saw — offering everything from racking systems to inverters, power conditioning and other distributed electronics technology — were packed today, while activity around at least some of the panel makers seemed more subdued. (One exception was Sharp Electronics’ huge booth, which featured a fully mounted solar array as well as a new modular residential solar system developed in partnership with Enphase.)

I suspect that what’s behind the shift in attention is the steep price declines that have pushed conventional solar panel prices to less than $1/Watt during the past year.

Many of us believe that panel prices are just about as low now as they’re going to get for a while. So people are looking to the rest of the system for further efficiencies and cost savings. And BOS developers are finding a variety of ways to reduce system installation costs, even in areas such as racking systems where you might expect the innovation opportunities to be somewhat limited.

Meanwhile, the steady decline in installed system prices seems to be bringing out more interest from project developers. We’ve been impressed thus far by the number of potential engineering, procurement, and construction companies stopping by our booth looking to develop projects.

Declining system costs

I attribute the increasing developer activity to the fact that costs have come down so much. You can now install a complete system for less than $3 a watt,and the numbers actually pencil out at this level.

Granted, the availability of solar industry subsidies is declining. But because the cost of components is dropping even faster, government subsidies are becoming less important in determining the success of solar projects. And obviously, that’s a good thing in today’s economy and political environment.

Thus far, the decision to move this year’s SPI event from California to Texas appears to be working out well. We’re definitely seeing more attendees from Texas and the Southeast US than in previous years, which over the long term should help to broaden the event’s overall audience. And judging from our barbecue dinner last night, the food here’s not half bad either.

Jerry Cutini was a board member of eIQ Energy before being appointed as its CEO in July 2011. From 2003-2009 he served as chairman, CEO, and president of semiconductor equipment company Aviza Technology Inc. (Click here for a podcast interview in which he and Oliver Janssen, former CEO and now “chief business officer,” comment on their new roles and company strategy.)

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