Solar Power International 2015

The SPI 2015 show is underway in California, the U.S. from September 14 to 17. During this time, over 600 exhibitors will display their wares to around 15,000 show attendees. A number of side events and educational sessions are also running.

To keep pv magazine readers informed of the latest news at the event, founder and chief market research analyst, SPV Market Research, Paula Mints will be reporting her impressions and takeaways from the general sessions.

Are you at the SPI? Do you have any comments on the event, or Paula's impressions? Let us know your views below.

Day 3: Solar is the technology of the future

Three days of conference and exhibit going, and three nights of parties left SPI attendees with little energy, but that did not halt their positivity for solar’s future. Even ITC-anxiety has not dampened enthusiasm, nor has it erased the belief that solar is inevitably the technology of the future. In fact, as the industry and all of its technologies embrace the need for cost effective battery back up (storage), the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) announced a change in its mission, to include other distributed energy sources.

Julia Hamm, SEPA president and CEO communicated the change in direction at the conference opening session, and at the annual SEPA utility award luncheon. Details about what this will mean, or whether a change in the association’s name was not forthcoming.

Overall, SPI attendees seemed pleased with the event’s content, though many expressed a wish for more detail and in depth coverage. The desire for more detail was apparent from the questions attendees asked during a Wednesday afternoon session on Storage Technologies, where speakers discussed deployment and efficiency, while backing away from questions about price and cost with the ubiquitous response: "This is confidential."

In general, they discussed the value of storage for ramping up, and as a load generator. However, when pressed, one speaker offered a range of US$200 to $600/kWh for adding battery storage to an installation, also saying that adding up to nine hours of storage increases system costs by 25%.

Chris Larsen, senior sales engineer, Dynapower Company, also said that for lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, costs could range between $350 to $800/kW. He noted that Li-ion is used due to its faster response time for frequency duration and smoothing. In some cases, he said, Li-ion batteries are being added on a module-by-module basis. 

Rural electrification

SunEdison, which has expanded in many directions of late, discussed its Frontier Power unit at a company-sponsored session on Thursday morning, titled Business Opportunities in Rural Electrification.

Cathy Zoi, CEO of SunEdison Frontier Power, and other speakers, including Tomas Garcia, General Manager Rural Electrification EMEA at SunEdison, discussed the business opportunity in India and on the continent of Africa from a perspective that was not much different from 40 years ago. But there was a twist. 

Similar to the U.S. solar lease model, and the global utility model, SunEdison will own the solar equipment and bill for usage, setting up small local utility boards in remote rural communities. The global opportunity is significant with 1.3 billion people without access to utility-grid electricity and an additional one billion people underserved with unreliable power. SunEdison believes this could be a $200-billion market.

Zoi described the concept as a power station with solar, batteries and a small diesel gen-set. The goal is to provide high quality power similar, or more reliable than, what urban areas of the target countries experience. Similar to the utility concept, distribution lines will be extended to all customers and each customer will have a meter. SunEdison Frontier Power will install light sockets, lights, etc.

Beginning with India, Zoi said that there are >500,000 telecommunication towers, as well as a variety of businesses, such as banks with ATMs, dairy farms etc., that need 24 hour stable power. Meanwhile, on the continent of Africa, 600,000 are without access to utility-grid electricity.  

The vision of SunEdison’s Frontier Power is energy, connectivity and water, viewed through the lens of an off-grid utility where, again, SunEdison owns the assets. The company will own and operate remote mini grids to serve households and SMEs, anchor loads, water pumping and connectivity (the internet). An anchor load could potentially connect a mini grid to the utility grid.

The initial focus is on communities in India and on the continent of Africa, where it will set tariffs and develop local partnerships and joint ventures pooling debt financing from DFIs (development financing institutions). The strategy is to develop pilot mini grids in the target countries and use the experience to ramp up and scale. In India, the ramping process has begun. In Senegal, currently the company is moving from pilot to ramp up, and in Tanzania there is a pilot stage project.  

It is difficult not to laud such a worthy effort, as there is significant need in the developing countries for rural electrification. The primary reason that rural electrification is difficult is affordability. These systems are deployed in very poor areas where the population often lives on well under $1.00 a day. 

There is no question that there is demand and demonstrable need. Unfortunately, a model wherein SunEdison Frontier Power installs, owns and operates the equipment and charges the local population a fee for services is likely to have a very long payback timeline and may never prove profitable. Nonetheless, their success in this regard would be a truly meaningful one and it is an effort to be applauded.

Day 3: VP Biden "Obama Administration supports permanent ITC extension"

SPI attendees arrived early for Wednesday’s General Session in anticipation of the opportunity to see U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speak. They waited in line, trudged through security, and waited. And waited.

Once he arrived, to rousing applause and following a panel discussion detailed below, he said the Obama Administration supports a permanent extension of the ITC.

The more Americans who understand the possibility of solar, the more solar will be deployed, he said, adding, "I know that I am preaching to the choir, but there are a lot of journalists in attendance and it is important to make people aware of what the U.S. solar industry has accomplished."

VP Biden also noted the significant incentives received by conventional energy and the well-funded campaign by, for example, the Koch brothers to continue the conventional energy status quo. He further referenced the need to find a place in renewable energy for displaced workers, such as those in coal, for whom the loss is not only a job, but a way of life.

In referencing those who will be displaced by a switch to solar and RE from conventional energy, Biden focused on an important and often ignored topic. A switch to a world powered by renewable energy, instead of conventional energy will not just effect the owners of coal mines and other conventional energy plants, it will have a significant effect on workers and theirs families that have for generations relied on conventional energy jobs for the livelihoods of their families. 

The solar industry needs to reach out and help displaced workers take advantage of the move to a world powered by renewable technologies. There is strength in numbers, and the numbers are potentially far larger than those currently touted – think of what is possible should the solar energy spend more time reaching out to workers at risk of losing conventional energy jobs and inviting them into the renewable energy future. 

Storage key to solar's future

Prior to VP Biden’s speech, the general session began with SEPA’s President and CEO, Julia Hamm chairing a panel with industry participants Doyle Beneby, CEO of CPS Energy, Greg Wolf, president of Duke Energy, and Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar. 

Responding to a question about recent changes in the industry, Beneby said that technology changes were of course crucial, but changes in the perspectives and attitudes of people ranging from climate change to independence form the bedrock of the future of the solar industry. 

Wolf added that there has been a shift in terms of acceptance of solar and RE as a part of day-to-day life, and the future. Renewable energy will provide a significant portion of the energy infrastructure going forward. Continuing, he said that customer focus is driving the future and this will take us towards a range of ways to serve customers.

Customer focus remained a theme of the panel. Doyle Beneby said PV is the will of the customer. In terms of utilities, their standard investment is mitigated or compensated over time, without unduly burdening the customer. 

All panelists agreed storage, specifically battery technology, is key to the future of solar.

The Obama Administration (EPA) Clean Power Plan was a theme running through the conference. Responding to a question about the impact on the U.S. solar industry of the Clean Power Plan, Gregory Wolf said you can’t read it without seeing it as a driving force for renewable energy and energy efficiency in the U.S.  Utilities will be more active in wanting to own solar assets. 

Tony Clifford said that several years ago, solar companies had no work with utilities. This has changed dramatically. Now we need to settle on a value for solar on the grid and on net metering going forward, he said. Early drafts of the Clean Power Plan did not mention solar or wind, but with cost and efficiency improvements solar was given a plan. Solar just needs to get through the next five years.  Extension of the ITC for five years is very important. 

To a question about utilities and the solar community working together, Clifford said that right now the industry is fighting it out state public utility commission to state public utility commission and this is not good for anyone. Customers want more solar and utilities, and the solar industry needs to agree on common ground and then move forward. 

Summing up the session, Clifford concluded that the solar industry is in an adolescent stage. It’s just getting started.

Day 2: CSP needs storage to compete with PV

Day two of SPI found attendees frantically rushing between meetings, conference presentations and the exhibition: too much choice and too little time!

A morning session discussing views on concentrated solar power’s (CSP’s) present and future market outlook offered hope to proponents of the technology. The panel, dubbed a CEO Conversation, brought together Dave Ramm, chairman & CEO of BrightSource, Kevin Smith, CEO of Solar Reserve and Fred Redell, MDof Abengoa U.S. to discuss their perspectives of CSP. The overall feeling was that storage is imperative, if CSP is to increase its competitiveness.

Responding to a question about U.S. President Obama’s Clear Power Plan, which requires each state to put together a plan for reducing carbon emissions, the speakers were less excited about the potential for CSP in the U.S., than others in the industry.

Solar Reserve’s Kevin Smith said the biggest challenge to CSP is cost. He said PV is inexpensive and the value of storage is not fully realized in the U.S., so, the Clean Power Plan will not have an immediate effect on CSP. Solar Reserve has focused on countries with weaker grids, such as South Africa, Chile and China, while still doing business in the U.S. 

Fred Redell from Abengoa agreed with Smith, saying the question is whether or not the value of storage can be realized. He said a significant asset of CSP is its dispatch-ability.

Dave Ramm of BrightSource stated any policy providing penalties or incentives is helpful. He added that in the U.S., coal is currently under fire and BrightSource sees an advantage in a coal/CSP hybrid configuration. Ramm also said that in countries with poor grids, the value of storage and dispatch-ability is high. In the U.S., there is not currently this value recognition. The value of storage is higher internationally. 

To a question about what the CSP industry can do on a U.S. state-by-state basis, Smith replied that California has a pilot program for storage. He noted that lead acid batteries are extremely expensive and there are environmental concerns. Renewable energy technologies need storage and without it, the option is natural gas peaking plants. He pointed out that international markets already require storage, while the U.S. primarily uses natural gas and conventional fuels for backup. Dave also said that if the only requirement for storage is cost, not much storage will be involved. 

Concerning PV and CSP combined, the panelists saw advantages. Smith said CSP can be designed to run 24 hours with storage and PV, with CSP/Storage ramped up as PV ramps down. He added that in Chile pricing is <US$0.10 for hybrid CSP/PV. Smith also said that PV has less value in Chile currently and some times during the day the value of PV is zero, because of oversupply.

Dave Ramm said the CSP industry needs to consider the grid operator’s perspective, as well as the regulatory environment. The grid operator has to account for the intermittency of renewable energy technologies, while making decisions based on need. He pointed out that because of dispatch-ability, CSP offers choice.

In response to a question about lessons learned, each panelist pointed to improvements in efficiency based on experience. Ramm said the 392 MW Ivanpah CSP project in California’s Mojave Desert had a four year ramp up, which is not economically feasible. Because of lessons learned, the system they are currently installing in Israel will have a two year ramp up.  He further pointed out that Ivanpah met its production goals in its first year of operation. 

Smith said the most important lesson learned concerned cost reduction on future projects. PV realizes cost savings via manufacturing efficiencies, while CSP realizes cost savings and experience by building projects. 

Redell went on to say that the 280 MW Solano CSP project with molten salt, in Arizona, met expectations the first year. Molten salt storage reduces parasitic losses resulting in 96 to 98% in capturing energy. 

Smith said CSP cannot be compared with PV and wind, and must instead be compared with conventional energy. CSP is cheaper than coal and nuclear.  Natural gas, however, is more competitive in the U.S., but more expensive in international markets. Chile is a very good example of a country where CSP is a better economical choice than natural gas. 

Ramm said that without storage, CSP is not worth much and is disadvantaged in competition with PV. He added that long term viability is based on cost competitiveness. 

CSP has a long build time and a higher upfront cost than PV and time is money.  The technology sector requires patient investment and is best in large configuration. Though the CSP industry remains optimistic, emergence of affordable battery technologies would offer significant competition.

Day 1: ITC waiting game continues, solar poll responses leave speakers baffled

The first general session of the 2015 Solar Power International (SPI) conference was packed with industry professionals, all anxious to hear news about the 30% solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC): Will it be extended; Will it not be extended, How long will it be extended for? They came away with a promise that the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is doing its best and that involvement by the entire industry is crucial. 

The most likely scenario at this point is that any extension will be tacked onto something significant, such as a bill to stave off government closure, and that it will be an extension for entities that have begun the installation process by the December 31, 2016 deadline. In sum, the waiting game continues.

General session speakers comprised Steve Malnight, VP, Regulatory Affairs at PG&E, Nat Kreamer, president & CEO at Clean Power Finance, Julia Hamm, president & CEO at SEPA, and Rhone Resch, president & CEO of SEIA. They participated in an hour-long session that was part fireside chat, part attendee poll. Three questions, with multiple choice options, were also posed and attendees texted their responses (Caveat: As no statistics regarding response rate were offered, the results were highly unscientific!).

To question number one – will staffing at your company be affected if the ITC is not renewed – 44% of respondents said there would be no decrease in staffing.

Panelists were startled by the response, stating that it indicated a high level of denial. Responding to the results, Resch said that SEIA is issuing a report that indicates 80,000 jobs will be lost if the ITC is not renewed. Resch went on to point out that the U.S. wind industry went through several boom and bust cycles during years when the Production Tax Credit (PTC) was, or was not, renewed.

Agreeing that the result indicated denial, Kreamer said that soft costs are where reductions in costs will come from. 

The next question concerned the role of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and its likely impact on the solar industry. To this question, 49% of respondents said there would be a moderate impact, and 41% said there would be a significant impact. If this were a more complex and well organized survey, these competing results would nullify each other.

The panelists disagreed with what was, essentially, an unscientific draw. Julia Hamm said the Clean Power Plan will open up new markets. Resch added that there will be 10 times more solar deployed because of the plan. Meanwhile, everyone agreed that state by state implementation details will be difficult to iron out. 

Moving to community solar, all panelists agreed that this volatile, rapidly changing and currently ill-defined business plan is of high interest to all U.S. solar participants. Resch said community solar is in a dynamic state now, with new models emerging constantly. The good news is that the sector can take advantage of the ITC. 

Currently, questions about community solar are flooding the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), and the SEPA view is that community solar has the potential to broaden the appeal and option of solar to a larger non-roof owning audience.

The final question for responding attendees was: What is the best complimentary technology to get solar to the next stage. 74% chose storage.

Panelists were again nonplussed, with the PG&E representative stating that storage is just one part of the critical solution.

The general session ended with the news that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden would speak at Wednesday’s general session.

All in all, it was an interesting opening session for the annual SPI conference, an event packed with traditional conference sessions, as well as walking sessions and tradeshow presentations.

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