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Solar Power International 2011 took place in Dallas last week and it was a very interesting show. While it is hard to reduce a three-day event to a single blog post, it is entirely fitting to provide a brief recap on what we saw, and more importantly, our take on what it all means.
We have not seen any actual attendance figures for the show but to us it seemed smaller and less attended than last year in Los Angeles. To be sure, given our other obligations we did not have as much time to walk the floor as we did last year, but the show seemed more contained than before. Moreover, the crowds seemed significantly smaller. Last year in LA it was not uncommon to be in a crowd of people nearly as tight as an infamous LA freeway traffic jam. There was little or none of that in Dallas from what we could see.
Still, the show was sufficiently large that there were undoubtedly cool things that we missed so please let us know your thoughts in the comments (not so subtle hint!).
The biggest change in the show this year compared to the five we had attended previously was how often people brought up financial stability (or lack thereof) as a selling point. Now in this post-Solyndra world that no doubt makes some sense, but it was jarring to hear it brought up so frequently. For example, one distributor touted the leanness of their operation compared to their bloated and struggling competitor. That competitor assured me, sua sponte, that they had been recapitalized and were now stable and moreover, their production guarantees were actually provided not by them, but by a third-party financial institution. One panel manufacturer critiqued another by saying that they were bleeding money while that competitor suggested that solar was simply the flavor of the week at the competition and that they would not have staying power in solar.
And so on.
While we had heard financial critiques of start-ups in the past - and it is always a fair question to ask where a start-up is getting its money and whether it can generate sufficient revenues to survive - this was the first time that we had heard such critiques applied to well-established players. It was both interesting - certainly we have not spent much time analyzing 10K’s in deciding which products and suppliers to use - and a bit distressing. Here’s hoping that next year everyone is doing so well that the financial matters are moot.
The most interesting development at the show this year was the introduction of Korean electronics giant, LG Electronics, into the U.S. solar panel market. From a technology standpoint, their panels - both mono and polycrystalline - appear to land somewhere between Sanyo and Suntech. The fit and finish appeared to be very good and the specs are appealing with a 0~+3% production tolerance and a module efficiency ranging from 13.7 to 16.2%. One of their products, the Mono X (which comes in 250, 255 and 260 Watt variations) also claims to be the first solar panel to be “Carbonfree Certified.”
More significantly, the LG panels possess something that neither Sanyo nor Suntech has: an enormous brand-presence with American consumers. Indeed, given the success of LG in the U.S. consumer electronics marketplace in recent years, it would be surprising to find a potential client who doesn’t already have one or more LG products in their home. “Life’s Good,” indeed.
As fellow blogger and solar tribe leader, Tor Valenza a/k/a Solar Fred, has commented more than once, branding - and more importantly, brand recognition - in the solar industry is what we are all trying to achieve but so far no one really has. Now that LG is weighing in and in a big way, can it be long before we see that LG Super Bowl ad featuring solar panels? (Hey, LG, feel free to go with that idea and you don’t even have to pay me!)
The other big development that we saw was the introduction of a clever, non-lease financing mechanism coming from one of our distributors, Focused Energy. While leasing programs can appear attractive - we’ve all seen the “go solar with no money down” ads - they have limitations for commercial customers including forfeiting the ability to advertise that your company is solar powered. Yet cash-flow concerns can impose a significant impediment to potential clients. While the bulk of those early out-of-pocket costs get recouped fairly quickly thanks to the utility rebate and the federal tax credit, commercial clients must still pony-up the full freight to get the project rolling.
That is where Focused is stepping in to help out. Their program will allow the commercial client to assign to Focused the rebate and federal tax credit (in the form of the 1603 grant) and immediately reduce that amount from their initial purchase price. We are excited by this program and we will post in greater detail when we have had a chance to review the fine print.
Finally, we would be entirely remiss without a word or two of thanks to our sponsor, the great folks over at Enphase Energy. Going into the event we wrote about how our presence was being subsidized by Enphase and we have also reported on the very spirited competition in which we participated and which became the talk of the show.
As great as all that was, on a more significant level, this was a chance to have unprecedented access to the Enphase decision makers, from CEO Paul Nahi, to Product Manager Magnus Asbo, to Marketing folks like Christine Bennett and Noelani Price. Think about it - how often does an installer get asked by the CEO and Product Manager of a product you use everyday, “What are the things you like the least about our product?" That’s easy - hardly ever! But we were able to provide exactly that type of feedback this past week in Dallas. Of course, it remains to be seen whether any of our feedback ends up in their product, but it surely does feel good to be asked.
Given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - something Enphase already knows quite a bit about given the influx of other companies, including SMA, into the micro-inverter space - we would not be surprised to see more manufacturers inviting installers to participate with them at future shows. We surely hope that happens as it can only be good for the industry, but Enphase has set the bar really high.
So those are our thoughts; if you were at the show we would love to hear about your insights and observations in the comments.