SPI 2012: Three Takeaways and Where the Solar Industry Goes from Here

Time to Set the Record Straight and Act Like a Confident, Mature Industry

Despite my less-than-desirable hotel accommodations and muggy Florida weather, the recent Solar Power International (SPI) 2012 conference in Orlando was a success on many fronts, including as a powerful testament to the solar industry’s rapid growth and broad popularity, even in the  currently challenging economic environment. There was a tremendous amount of fascinating discussion at the conference, by leaders from companies spanning the industry value chain, and by the conference’s keynote speaker, former President Bill Clinton (see here for a few reactions to that speech). We plan to follow up in future posts with more thoughts and highlights on SPI 2012. For now, though, I just wanted to provide what I believe are three important “takeaways” from the conference, including thoughts on where the industry goes from here.

First, I was struck by the continued need for all of us to forcefully advocate for our industry. That includes constant reinforcement of core messaging about solar power’s benefits for the economy. Although these benefits may seem obvious to those of us who work in the industry, the reality is that the fossil fuel sector and its allies are not letting up in their assault on solar power. To the contrary, they are ramping it up. Just last week, in fact, the New York Times reported that “estimated spending on television ads promoting coal and more oil and gas drilling or criticizing clean energy has exceeded $153 million this year.” That’s what we’re up against, and we need to not only be aware of that, but to fight back hard.

Among the weapons we can use to counter this fossil fuel assault on solar power are reports like the one just published by Nancy Pfund and Michael Lazar, entitled “Red White & Green: The True Colors of America’s Clean Tech Jobs.” As that report concludes:

  • “Clean tech may mean a debate in Washington, but it means jobs everywhere else.”
  • Green jobs are “growing the most quickly in some of the smallest and ‘reddest’ states.”
  • Among the eye-popping statistics that jumped out at us from this report is that “three states all by themselves each have more clean tech workers than all the coal mining workers in the USA.”
  • Adding to the previous point, it turns out that “[t]he total number of Americans working in clean tech is many times the size of those in coal.”

The success of this industry is clear, the importance of maintaining that success is even clearer, and the need to make that case consistently and effectively – including through use of traditional and online/digital media channels – has never been more urgent.  For more on this subject, please see the article I posted in June on the importance of communicating the value of Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) to the public.

Second, I believe that Solar Power International 2012 highlighted the tremendous growth potential for all sectors of solar. That includes CSP applications which bring dispatchability and grid stabilizing benefits to utility customers looking to increase output and reduce emissions. For more on that subject, please check out this video of Jayesh Goyal, Global VP, Sales at AREVA Solar (Full disclosure: AREVA Solar is a client of Tigercomm’s.) Also see this video from photovoltaic (PV) inverter manufacturer, KACO new energy, which hosted an interesting roundtable discussion on innovative storage solutions at its booth.  As Bret Young of KACO explained, “We don’t know exactly the mix of those products [utility-scale storage, neighborhood-scale PV storage, grid saver at the individual home]…and we need to be aware in scaling as a company to meet that request and meet that need…both in front and behind the meter to apply storage to our inverters.”

The final takeaway from the conference I’d like to leave you with is the importance of messaging solar as an industry and as a smart business investment, not as an “issue.” As a case in point, see the video (courtesy of Renewable Energy World) above, on “how big business is catching on to solar,” on what the optimal “green retail initiatives and best practices [are] for sustainable development,” and on “ways to cut costs” in solar installation. Note that one of the participants in this panel was mega-retailer WalMart, which the New York Times recently highlighted as one of the big U.S. retail chains – along with Walgreens, Costco, Kohls, and Ikea – which are increasingly “rely[ing] on rooftop solar power to help meet their energy needs.” In the case of Walmart, the chain has “an aggressive goal of eventually deriving all of its energy from renewable sources.” Clearly, this trend isn’t going away; to the contrary, it’s accelerating.

The bottom line is that the solar industry today has grown to the point where the largest U.S. corporations are looking at the industry as a way, ultimately, to enhance their bottom lines. That the solar industry is going to keep growing is not really the question at this point; in spite of fossil fuel industry attacks against it, the underlying economics and technology are just too strong not to win in the long run. The question is, how rapidly will the transition to a clean energy economy, one in which solar plays a huge role, take? If we push aggressively and effectively (in “full contact” mode, as Tigercomm President Mike Casey succinctly puts it) – it is my firm belief that we can speed up this transition significantly.

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