I went to SPI today – Solar Power International. It’s the premier solar conference of the globe, with 15,000 attendees and over 600 vendors. This year’s conference was in Anaheim. Perhaps I wished it was in a more exotic location, but the purpose was to stay current with the industry – not an excuse to travel.
Although not exotic, one big perk to Anaheim is they have a train station. Taking the train means a several-hour round-trip of distraction-free work, not only does this provide an opportunity to write a sentence with 3 hyphenated words, but also a complete blog post. Sullivan Solar Power’s headquarters in San Diego is exactly NOT a distraction-free environment; we are growing rapidly and growth means activity and organized chaos. I’ve written blogs before that literally took me 3 or 4 sessions to complete.
I wanted to start off by attending the Connected Home 2.0: Where Solar, Storage, Smart Energy Management, and the Advanced Grid Intersect. However, this session filled up before I could get in. Instead I headed over to Concentrating Solar Power’s Present and Future: A CEO Conversation for a chat about salt towers.
Next was Surviving in a Highly Competitive Environment. This session touched on where the market is going, what we’ve learned from previous mistakes – and most important, the post-ITC world. Some folks describe the post-ITC scene as post-apocalyptic, maybe something like Mad Max. Others were less doomsday and say we’ll all get through it with some belt tightening. Personally, I think the view from your window will depend on how prepared your company is – companies already struggling to stay afloat before the ITC goes away will quickly drown. The companies who stay afloat long enough will end up taking a larger share of the market as a result. It might be as simple as discovering who can cut costs by 30% and pass it onto the customer. One thing is certain – we’ll all find out just how cheap solar can go.
I came and went through a few more sessions, but most of my remaining time was spent on the floor walking vendor’s booths and displays. Panel cleaning, every kind of roof mount you could ever hope to see, thin-film technology – even tractors equipped to push sun-tracking system posts into the ground. I saw a lot of Chinese companies, but can’t tell you exactly what most were selling. They seemed to not know themselves – they just know they can make just about anything you want.
Being in the solar industry for 5 years now, I don’t feel like a seasoned industry insider, but the reality is that’s a long time in solar. That becomes apparent when I notice even the type of people who attend trade-shows has changed in the last few years – it’s less blue-collar now, more executives in suits. Conversations among attendees seem to be in the complex strata of finance and investment. On one hand this is a sign that well-funded players see a bright future in solar, however, it also means the days of the local mom-and-pop solar business are numbered. Some of the very people who helped ignite the solar industry will soon find they don’t have the business acumen to stay in the game. Kinda sad, but that’s the nature of things.
Overall it was a great experience today. I learned stuff, and that’s why I went.