We spent last week at Solar Power International in Orlando thanks to our friends at Enphase Energy - here is our recap.
As we noted in our pre-show post, we were invited to attend SPI this year at the invitation of Enphase Energy, the company behind the most successful (but certainly no longer only) micro-inverters on the market. This was our second consecutive year at SPI courtesy of Enphase and a better host could not be found.
Last year we were part of their Installer Challenge where six installers from around the country participated in a good-natured competition to demonstrate how easy it was to install the Enphase M215 product with its plug-in cabling. We didn’t know it then, but very soon we would be installing more than 200 M215’s on the Westridge roof, and in doing so, earn our second invite.Westridge Project on Display at Enphase Booth
Having achieved substantial success in the residential market, Enphase is working very hard to make in-roads in the commercial sphere - and thus our install at Westridge fit nicely into that narrative. We participated in a panel with a group of other installation companies that have also incorporated Enphase into commercial projects and we did a pair of one-on-one interviews that showcased the Westridge project and our experience using Enphase. We also got to speak to a fair number of visitors to the Enphase booth (which was always crowded) and we even got a sneak peak at a prototype of the next model (which we can’t comment on now, except to note that some installer-requested features will be included - stay tuned!).
It was a great way to see the show and we can’t thank Kady Cooper and everyone at Enphase enough - you folks rock!
Oh, and one other point. Pretty much every large company at the show hired local “talent” to help host their booth. Most companies that do that, seem to think that it makes sense to have these women wear outfits that are more akin to what you would see on a dance floor than at a solar installation. As the father of a 16-year-old daughter, it was really satisfying that the two women who were brought in by Enphase to help host their booth wore outfits just like all of the other Enphase employees. Another example of how Enphase Energy is a class act.
As great a time as we had at the Enphase booth, we would have to say that overall, the show was a bit of a letdown, as was the show in Dallas last year. We admit to our California bias, and we mean no disrespect to solar fans in Dallas and Orlando, but the crowds just never came anywhere near what saw filling the aisles in Los Angeles two years ago - despite a significantly worse economy in 2010. Not clear that Chicago will be able to reverse that enthusiasm gap (and also not sure whether we will be there to find out), but we expect things to bounce back when the show moves to Las Vegas in 2014.
If there was one discernible trend at the show, it was that AC-modules - whether fully integrated or by way of the abundance of micro-inverters on display - are here to stay. We think the reasons for that success are pretty compelling (as we have noted before) but it certainly looks like the panel and inverter makers have come around to that point of view - however grudgingly that may be.
A number of companies were talking about energy storage and a presentation at the KACO booth declared that local storage was the future of solar. That may well be, but none of the products that we saw at the show, including those from KACO and Samsung, appeared to be ready for deployment anytime soon. Still, the prospect of potentially generous incentive dollars for such storage - assuming the CPUC can ever implement the existing law - means that this will continue to be a hot topic and one which we intend to cover in greater depth in the future.
We wrote last year about the introduction of LG Electronics into the U.S. solar market and this year they became our “go-to” panel of choice for working with the Enphase M215 micros. Well it is apparent that LG is paying attention to their feedback as they had a couple of significant announcements.
First, their existing panel products, notably the 255 Watt panel that we will be using for the rest of the year, is getting a frame redesign that will make the overall panel 11% lighter without sacrificing strength or durability. Also, the panel now has clips on the back side to hold the panel leads in place so you cannot have them getting crushed by the panel frame when you stack them prior to installation. These are relatively minor changes, but they show a great attention to the type of details that make an installer’s life easier, and even safer.
The other announcement was that of their upcoming 300 Watt, 60-cell panel that is due out next summer. We had heard rumors that LG was about to announce such a panel, and now they have - of course, next summer is a long way off. It will be interesting to see how this new panel meshes with the new Enphase micro-inverter which will most likely also debut sometime next year.
To be sure, the biggest hit of the conference was the speech delivered by President Bill Clinton, fresh off his tour-de-force at the DNC the week earlier.
President Clinton did not disappoint, taking on the new role of Cheerleader-in-Chief. Often touted as the smartest guy in the room, the former President displayed detailed knowledge of the solar industry and he both exhorted and chided the crowd for not getting their successes before the public. “Most people don’t know that there are 100,000 people working in the solar industry,” Clinton reminded the audience.
“You are going to win this fight,” the President insisted, “the only question is when and how." What was needed was for solar to reach the sort of “tipping point” which would make that ultimate success inevitable. But we certainly aren’t there yet, which is a shame given that “the United States leads the world in its potential for solar so we must also lead the world in installed capacity - but we are not." A lot of that is a reflection of different policies between countries that have adopted solar with gusto, like Germany, and the more tepid policy response of the U.S.
But those of us in the solar industry are in the “future business” and “you have to take risks if you are going to go to tomorrow’s dance." We should embrace those risks because we are in such a fortunate position:
The greatest human tragedy in this country today is the crushing unemployment. Millions of Americans wake up every day with no hope that today will be any better than yesterday. But you are so very fortunate because you get to get up every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Today I’m going to do something great!" You just have to keep doing it until we reach that tipping point.
Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. President, we’re working on it!
SMA, one of the leading inverter manufacturers in the world, had a tortured product “near roll-out” during SPI and in the course of same made possibly the worst ever argument in support of their product from a solar company. Here’s how it played out. After initially dismissing the introduction of micro-inverters as a fad that would never catch on, SMA has now had to introduce their own micro-inverter product, but they remain deeply ambivalent about the whole thing. Nowhere was this more on display than their presentation about the “virtues” of their new product during SPI. We attended one of these schizophrenic productions and came away not only scratching our head, but seriously annoyed.
We were fundamentally puzzled by a presenter who spent the first half of his presentation questioning why on earth (or more accurately, on the roof) anyone would ever want to install a micro-inverter in the first place. He then abruptly shifted gears to sing the praises of his product, and then introduced perhaps the most significant non-starter concept at SPI: the hybrid PV system, which to SMA means installing both micros and a string inverter on the same project. (Do I really want both AC and DC conduit runs coming down from the roof? Is anyone going to do this?)
Perplexed by the whole thing, I went up after the presentation to hear what else he would say. The conversation promptly shifted to warranties, specifically, how long would the SMA micro’s be? Well, we were told, the product is still in testing (with UL) so he couldn’t definitively say. “At least ten years, hopefully 15,” he said. (Now mind you that CSI rules require at least a 10 year warranty, so we weren’t really breaking any new ground here.) “But wait,” said one of the installers standing by, “I have to compete with the 25-year warranty that Enphase is offering. How am I supposed to compete with that if all you offer is 10 or 15 years?" SMA’s spokesperson responded by belittling the idea of a company that has only been in business a short time offering a 25-year warranty, calling it not credible. “Maybe,” said the installer, “but once I submit my bid, I’m not there to make that argument to the customer. So I’m at a disadvantage if the guy bidding against me submits a bid that offers a 25-year warranty.”
Clearly frustrated by this predictable turn in the conversation, SMA’s spokesperson decided to pull out his trump card: “Look, you wanna talk 25-year warranties, you wanna know who else had a 25-year warranty? I’ll tell you who, Solyndra!”
Oh.. No… You… Didn’t!
At that point my head completely exploded. As an industry we simply cannot use Solyndra to make cheap points. We are attacked time, and time, and time again about the Solyndra situation and yet, here was SMA’s spokesperson going there with great relish. Just plain stupid - and frankly, totally unnecessary. Come on, SMA, you are better than that.
But while SMA’s speaker gets the award for most inappropriate comment, far and away the worst offender at SPI was a company called Shoals Technology that used the show to kick off an ad campaign for a product they called “Nice Rack” with photos of buxom women exploding out of their bikini tops. We alluded to this in our recap of the InterSolar conference, but obviously they did not get the hint. And then when lots of folks started to complain, they really earned the tin star with clusters for boorish behavior beyond the pale. You can contact their CEO, Dean Solon, by way of LinkedIn, or you can go to their contact page to let them know what you think of their sexist behavior. This is not the way to grow this industry, guys.