Solar Tribune

State of the Solar Industry Through the Lens of Solar Summit Attendees


When the solar industry gathers, those across the field are able to share recent successes, future goals, pressing concerns, and more.

On May 14 and 15, hundreds of industry professionals, financiers, and other stakeholders in the solar power industry gathered in Paradise Valley, Arizona, for the 12th annual Solar Summit put on by GreenTech Media and Wood Mackenzie to do just that. Marketed as the ‘premier conference for defining the latest industry needs for installers, developers, system manufacturers, financiers and regulators,’ this gathering of hundreds of the key players across the world of solar power provides critical functions as professionals who share the goal to increase the viability, market penetration, and future possibilities of solar technology and renewable energy more widely.

Such a gathering of diverse organizations and people who share these common goals gives those in attendance the opportunity to reflect on the past year while charting out their coming year in business. With that in mind, Solar Tribune had the opportunity to chat with a few attendees to hear how the conference went for them, hear what the priorities appear to be of the industry moving forward in 2019, and learn what the top benefits of the solar conference circuit is for a few different types of industry members.

Overall Impression

Clocking in at just a day and a half, the Solar Summit included panels, general sessions, and more narrow breakout sessions. Jordan Blanchard of Live Oak Bank, a financial institution that has become a major player financing solar projects, particularly enjoyed the breakout sessions. These sessions were separated into financing and developing sessions, and he attended the financing ones. “A lot of discussion now on solar plus storage,” he noted, which was one of the aspects that made the session of prime value to him compared with the more general sessions.

The size of the 2019 Solar Summit was just a few hundred professionals, which many deemed to be an ideal size where the major players were in attendance but it wasn’t so large as to make it overwhelming. Blanchard noted that some other conferences “are so massive that it’s hard to even find people, much less set up meetings,” but that the Solar Summit’s more intimate size allowed for high-value networking.

Photo Source: Valeria Luxury Living

Another key benefit of the structure of the Solar Summit is that it’s an area for thought leaders to converge, rather than just companies pushing specific products. As Chuck Ellis of SMA, a global specialist for PV technology, describes it:

“I prefer these kind of environments vs. trade shows because you typically have a different group of people that are attending. You tend to have more strategic forward-thinking representatives at these kind of conferences instead of just people trying to sell products in booths.”

Another unique selling proposition of the Solar Summit specifically is that it’s put on in conjunction with Wood Mackenzie. As Blanchard noted, “the Wood Mackenzie folks provide the data, and that is something that’s really unique to this conference…that’s the unique strength. I’m overall happy with it and planning on going again next year.”

Charting 2019 Solar Goals

The role of the Solar Summit, as well as other solar power conferences like this one, appear to play a more minor role in setting the solar industry goals as a whole, but the value of bringing all the minds together in one place is still notable.

Asked whether the conversations and education from the Solar Summit helps guide his company’s course for the next year, Ellis noted:

“I think it helps validate some of our strategy, but I don’t know that it really steers us in any one direction. Does it contribute? Absolutely. Does it validate things? Sure. But the overall strategy comes from our headquarters, not these conferences.” Blanchard shared a similar sentiment, noting of conferences as a whole that “I don’t think any of them really change the course of our business.”

That said, a few topics were brought up that were notable to those in attendance that Solar Tribune interviewed:

Energy Storage

Blanchard came into the Solar Summit eager to talk about energy storage, but had his impression confirmed that the technology is not yet ready for prime time. “But,” he noted,

“if I had heard at the conference that people thought it was ready and they were getting storage deals done then that maybe would accelerate our desire to finance solar plus storage more.”

Floating Solar

An area of excitement in the solar community for the expanded possibilities it provides when it comes to where installations can be planned is in floating solar. Teresa Barnes attended in her role with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to discuss just this topic, noting:

“We presented an update on the general status of the field and the results of a recent NREL publication on the potential for floating PV in the United States. We had very productive conversations with different stakeholders who are interested in PV.”

NREL finds that floating solar, which is not yet highly tapped into in the United States, could eventually account for 10% of the nation’s total annual electricity generation.

Photo Source: Energy Sage

U.S. Solar Policy

One topic that was at the forefront of Ellis’ mind heading into the Solar Summit was U.S. policy, such as the recent fight around solar tariffs. After talking with his peers he says he found a more or less consensus around his own ideas, which is useful for him to know moving forward. He told Solar Tribune that

“While I don’t want to get into what other people were talking about, certainly we’re going to see a short-term impact on business. It’s similar to the other tariffs that have been put into place and other obstacles that have happened in solar. The market will adjust and we’ll continue down the path we’re running. The real question I had is if it’s a long-term tariff or if we’ll reach an agreement with China and Trump will back off. I think it’s pretty relative, there seems to be such a dynamic market in this industry that there’s always something of this magnitude taking place. It’s the most dynamic industry I’ve been a part of.”

ITC Step Down

Despite noting in the preview of the conference that the Solar Summit “will cover how the ITC stepdown will impact project finance,” Blanchard notes he didn’t hear much about the topic. “No one seemed that concerned,” he relayed. Adding further,

“So maybe that will be a bigger topic next year. People will feel it, but it’s not enough to really diverge existing projects, especially because of the safe harbor rules. So it’s just not a huge topic of discussion.”

Evolution of the Industry

Another useful role these conferences play is one of a tent pole, where tracing the topics of concern, the major players, and the pending concerns from year to year is a great way to track how the industry as a whole has evolved. One example that Ellis noted was,

“the width and breadth of where solar is going is expanding pretty rapidly. You think back five to six years ago, you really just had inverters and modules and they were focused on residential, commercial, or utility-scale projects. You didn’t get into integration of grid management, you didn’t get into energy management, you didn’t get into virtual power plants or virtualization of all that stuff. Not only is the technology getting more advanced, but the strategies utilities can embrace when it comes to solar is expanding, the types of installations that are viable with storage and smart grid technology are advancing quickly, and the solar industry of tomorrow will seldom look the same as it did yesterday.”

Solar Conferences More Widely

As a whole, the real value of the Solar Summit and  similar conferences is the networking and community-building. The information is important, but innovation is moving at a pace that’s comfortable enough for organizations to keep up on their own without hearing anything new or game-changing at these conferences.

Photo Source: Solar Power Events

When asked about the value of these conferences, Blanchard described that it’s the law of diminishing returns:

“In 2016, when we first got into the industry, every conference was hugely helpful on the learning side and on the networking side. But every year that goes by, we’re far more knowledgeable about the industry and we’ve learned what we need to learn. And so, the learning opportunity diminishes, but the networking value is always increasing.”

Ellis agreed that networking is the true value, and while he enjoys hearing panels and speakers he says,

“I think the real value for me is being able to conduct with my peer group and get an understanding of where they see the industry going, what challenges they may be facing, and areas in which we can collaborate.”

In a similar way, organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other research-based organizations find these conferences as a key strategy to spreading their findings and analyses. Barnes said they attend solar conferences “to educate the U.S. solar community on our work and engage with stakeholders working in the downstream industry.”


About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates Chester Energy and Policy to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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