The N.C. Solar Center joined thousands of other solar industry professionals in Orlando, F.L. in early September for the largest solar industry event in North America, Solar Power International (SPI) 2012. The conference is co-organized by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) and this year featured a keynote address by former president Bill Clinton.
N.C. Solar Center staff attended the show to learn more about new trends in the industry, make new contacts, and represent North Carolina and its strong solar industry on a national stage. As in previous years, the Center exhibited at the conference and had support through partnerships/sponsorships. Many thanks to our sponsors:
The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, Raleigh Economic Development, N.C. Department of Commerce, ABB, Evolve Energy, Parker Poe, the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, Carolina Solar Energy, RB Engineering, Commscope, Enlight Solar, Argand Energy, Southern Energy Management, Kimley-Horn and Associates, SolarHot, and First Century Energy.
The exhibit hall housed over 900 exhibitors, including more than 200 first-time exhibitors, compared to last year’s 1,200 exhibitors. The halls were dominated by photovoltaic products and service providers, while there was a relatively small area of solar thermal exhibitors. In their own ways both solar technology industries are, as Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA, said in his opening remarks, “experiencing the best of times and the worst of times.” The U.S. solar thermal industry is developing new products and rapidly expanding a development model of third-party owned systems that sell metered solar thermal energy, while they are struggling to lower system prices to compete with dropping PV prices, excitement about PV, and low natural gas prices. The U.S. PV industry is rapidly growing the size and number of PV installations, while a severe component and system cost pressure is driving industry consolidation, led by module manufacturers.
This rapidly growing industry is spurring lots of innovation, which was noticeable by all the new products and services. The major system component makers continue to add features designed to increase value for PV system owners. One trend seen was module manufacturers teaming up with microinverter manufacturers to provide AC solar modules. AC modules were available at SPI 2011, but were much more commonplace this year. Inverter manufacturers are introducing new products designed to drive down costs and meet the demands of the electric grid. Many of the new inverters for the U.S. are transformerless, which are common in Europe now and are lighter and more efficient than transformer-based inverters. The newest inverters are also starting to offer communication with the local gird operator/utility, opening the door for a smarter grid powered by solar.
At least two major solar manufacturers displayed new energy storage systems designed to increase the value of a PV system. These systems ranged in size from a small residential system to a system designed for integration with a utility-scale PV system. These new energy storage systems come at a price premium today, but are expected to drop in cost and become more prevalent as the growth of electric vehicles help drive down the cost of the batteries.
The exhibit hall had just as many mounting system exhibitors as inverter exhibitors, and just as much product innovation as well. Many vendors were offering product updates, or entirely new systems, designed to lower system lifetime cost, primarily by decreasing the time required to install the system. There were nearly as many monitoring system exhibitors who were offering whiz-bang real-time monitoring of PV system performance. And, there were at least a few new exhibitors offering advanced software that plows through huge amounts of map based data with the goal of providing a very low cost evaluation of potential PV sites.