Notes from The Market Research Underground: Do You Feel It? The Future of DG Solar Is at Hand

The strongest and most trusted solar brand is actually a group of solar workers — the small to medium independent installers have always been, and are still, the face of the solar industry to people. This has remained true despite the residential solar lease and despite the rise of multi-megawatt (utility-scale) solar deployment. It has remained true as DG (distributed generation) systems have increased in size, and it has remained true despite announcements of the demise of the small/medium independent installer.

When solar is installed a distance from the load (utility scale) or via a solar lease and thus under the guise of free with no responsibility for maintenance, the end user is, in general, not personally involved.

When end users choose to buy a PV system and install it on their roof or in their yard, or any combination of yard/roof, they are personally vested in the decision and choose to do business with someone in their community who they trust.

There is a fundamental difference between the ‘idea’ of solar, that is, when it is installed at a distance from communities — out of sight, out of mind — and solar that is installed in a community and near end users. When solar is installed on houses in a neighborhood, schools and other buildings it becomes part of the fabric of the community and people, whether or not they own the solar system, become vested in it.

Solar that is installed a distance from the load becomes an idea with little emotional resonance just as electricity (that invisible kilowatt hour) only resonates during outages when people suddenly feel the lack of something they typically take for granted.

Multi-megawatt (utility scale) solar may dominate deployment but, like it or not, it matters as much to the true pioneers of the solar industry: the small to medium installer as it does to incentives. Heck, some of the big players in today’s solar industry started small, though they often choose to forget that they too have roots in the pioneering days of solar.

The Independent Installer, Often Besieged and Still the PV Industry’s Best Brand

Independent installers have been deemed a vanishing breed for so many years that they too often feel they have vanished.

Over time, commercial installations grew in size as did the companies installing them. 

The residential solar lease offered free solar to homeowners temporarily pushing the independent installer to the side.

Manufacturers, struggling along on margin-fumes, increased efficiency via form factor changes; that is, adding cells to modules instead of investing in R&D at the cell level and forced the new 72- to 96-cell modules to all buyers — never mind that these larger form factors might be unwelcome to smaller installers. 

New incentives seemed to favor larger installations and changes to net metering, and other requirements in the U.S. made the solar sale a bit harder. Nonetheless, the independent installer is alive and well and many times providing service to solar system lessee.

The point is that though bigger and with deeper pockets may seem to be the way of the future, DG solar at the community level remains the public and visible brand for solar and the impression the solar buying, and voting public gets comes from their local installers.

Residential solar is the bedrock business for most independent installers and the biggest market for residential solar in the world at a 38% share is the US. Figure 1 offers 2016 shares for the major country markets for residential solar.

Figure 1: 2016 Residential Solar by Major Market

Figure 2 presents a forecast through 2021 from three perspectives for the residential application.

Figure 2: Residential Application Forecast through 2021

Beware Large-Scale Solar, The Future of DG Is At Hand

Circling back to DG solar, utilities are waking up to DG solar and not in an if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them way. Utilities see DG solar at the community level as well as for communities a distance from the load as the way to ameliorate concerns about the grid, conserve resources and serve remote population

PV and storage deployed at homes, parking structures, government buildings, multi-unit (apartment) dwellings and others in concert with storage could provide the true independence that is the promise of DG solar while easing the strain on the grid and that PV/storage for rural communities could ease the strain on utility resources. 

These are not new concepts, use of PV in this way is the essence of off-grid solar deployment and was part of the discussion before multi-megawatt (utility-scale) solar swamped the discussion under the heading: Bigger is better. It was also discussed before the residential solar lease business model sold free solar — though, as many are beginning to realize, the promised free solar came with quite a few strings attached. 

The solar industry has long dreamed of a future where solar was mainstream, but it has been mainstream for years. Just ask your local, independent installer.

Don’t miss Paula Mints’ latest report, available at a discounted price through Renewable Energy World: Photovoltaic Manufacturer Capacity, Shipments, Price & Revenues 2016/2017

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SPV Market Research is a classic solar market research practice focused on gathering data through primary research and providing analyses of the global solar industry. Areas of expertise include PV technologies, markets and applications. Specifically: capacity, production, shipments, inventory, costs and prices for photovoltaic crystalline and thin film cells and modules as well as global market analysis including applications, system costs and prices, component costs and prices, market growth, history and forecasting and research into consumer attitudes about solar as well as the consumer buying experience. All Solar All of the Time Blog:

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