SPI’s evolution: From T-shirts to corporate suits

eIQ Energy’s Oliver Janssen scans the show floor on Day Two of Solar Power International (SPI), seeing noticeably more corporate firepower as a sign of the show’s growth and maturation. He also addresses the new US solar panel trade complaint filed against China.

by Oliver Janssen, chief business development officer, eIQ Energy

October 20, 2011 – Regular attendees of the annual Solar Power International (SPI)show have seen a noticeable transformation of the event in recent. With serious executives in attendance, the 2011 show provides a tangible demonstration of the event’s continued growth and maturation — and that of the US solar energy industry.

Solar energy has become “the fastest growing sector in the US economy,” according to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) CEO Rhone Resch, who addressed the show’s opening session Monday evening. It’s little surprise, then, that almost no one I’ve run into has been talking about the controversial demise of Solyndra. They’re too busy making contacts and discussing real projects.

In previous years, it wasn’t unusual to see crowds of mom-and-pop contractors and local solar installers walking the show floor dressed in shorts and T-shirts, looking to learn the ropes of an industry still in its infancy. While there are still some attendees in T-shirts, this year’s show definitely has a more corporate, professional feel.

Big international players such as GE, Sharp, and Samsung have put together huge, impressive displays staffed with armies of employees, while even smaller players are occupying larger booth spaces this year. If you want to be considered a significant player in this industry, you simply have to have a presence here.

SPI is a bellwether for the industry, and to get an idea of the show’s expected growth trajectory you need only look ahead at the planned venues for the show in coming years. Next year the show moves to Orlando, then on to Chicago ,which is to be followed in 2014 by that ultimate Mecca of successful trade shows, Las Vegas.

Solar trade war?

While the prevailing mood here has been optimistic, there has been discussion and concern about today’s unfair trade complaint filed by Solarworld Industries and other US solar panel manufacturers seeking retaliatory tariffs on imports of solar panels from China.

US manufacturers have good reason to be concerned about unfair government subsidies favoring their Chinese rivals. Proving their case may be difficult, however, while the possibility of a solar trade war could put a damper on industry investment and growth. Here’s hoping that cooler heads eventually prevail and that an agreeable, fair settlement can be negotiated outside of the US International Trade Commission.

On a lighter note, I had the pleasure of attending last night’s annual SPI Block Party at Gilley’s, the famous Dallas honky-tonk nightclub. One of the notable attractions there was a mechanical bull ride for those of the macho cowboy persuasion. It was fun to watch but, fortunately, I managed to avoid partaking in that particular challenge.

Oliver Janssen is chief business development officer of eIQ Energy, and was its CEO from 2008 until July 2011. (Click here for a podcast interview in which he and Jerry Cutini, eIQ Energy’s new CEO, comment on their new roles and company strategy.)


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