Solar Industry ‘In Need of a Makeover,’ Industry Reps Say at SPI

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) kicked off the 13th annual Solar Power International (SPI) conference in Las Vegas on Monday night — and its panel of industry and utility experts pulled no punches.

There was no need to change the hearts and minds of the hundreds of clean energy enthusiasts on-hand to celebrate the SPI opening general session at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

But according to the featured panel of U.S. solar and utility experts, the solar industry is in need of a makeover in how it engages policy makers and markets itself to U.S. consumers if it is to achieve its full potential.

“I don’t believe that all renewables are created equal,” Pegasus Capital Advisers’ David Crane said during the session. “Solar has many positives that the others just don’t have — economic, philosophical, locational. The solar industry has to stop acting like it’s the renewable energy industry; it puts them at the children’s table. Instead of selling on price, price, price, solar needs to present itself as more of a lifestyle choice. That’s not the way the industry is presenting itself right now.”

Panel moderator Jeffrey Ball of Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance introduced the session acknowledging a roller coaster of hair-raising contrasts that have today’s solar marketplace in flux.

Over the past year, Ball said, solar costs have continued to plummet, with power purchase agreements in some instances selling energy for as low as 4 cents per kWh. One major solar player — SunEdison — is in bankruptcy; familiar solar stocks are in the tank. The gap between the capital going into solar and what mainstream analysts are saying is the amount of capital that needs to go into solar is huge. Ball noted that the stocks of SunPower, First Solar, SolarCity, Sunrun are trading at one-third to one-half of what they’ve been trading at over the past 52 weeks.

On the up side, solar penetration in sun-drenched states has soared to the point where some utilities are starting to think about distributed generation as a serious threat to their businesses. And through it all, the industry was victorious in supporting the concerted lobbying of the SEIA and SEPA for the extension for the industry’s investment tax credit.

“Here’s our reality check: for all the growth, solar in the U.S. still is only about one percent of electricity generation,” Ball said. Yet looking forward, even Pacific Gas & Electric’s Steve Malnight — certainly a proponent of utility-scale solar over distributed generation — acknowledged projections that the bulk of energy consumers’ use will most likely be produced on site.

Acknowledging and meeting these challenges going forward can lift the entire solar industry in ways that set it apart from other energy sources and allow it to capitalize on market forces in their favor.

“There is distress everywhere in the energy industry,” Crane said. “Prices are terrible, environmental pressures are relentless. The world is changing toward the direction of solar. The opportunity for private equity in this space is nothing like I’ve ever seen.”

Panelist Nat Kreamer, President and CEO of Spruce, said during the session that the industry needs a more mature value proposition, one that grooms the solar message and makes it a lifestyle choice, introducing the social appeal of sustainable living and how it can integrate across multiple platforms.

While Monday night’s panel acknowledged that there’s no emotional attachment to a solar panel, there can be. Adopting what Crane refers to as “Solar Plus” — an integrated system with energy storage, EV charging and complementary sustainable living solutions — could define the new solar lifestyle that insulates the industry from straight price pressures.

“If you just talk to them about price and don’t give a solution or a bundle that contextualizes it, you’ve failed at marketing,” Kreamer said.

The gauntlet has been laid — to begin the heavy lifting that repositions solar in a way that gets the industry out of that one percent and into the mainstream. And that’s a great start for solar to earn its rightful place at the proverbial adult table.

Continued collaboration among the participants of this week’s industry conference could be the ticket that actually moves solar off of that roller coaster.

“There are such things as exponential growth,” concluded Crane. “The solar industry is on the cusp of that.”

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