Intersolar North America: the new Gold Rush


"Instead of calling them pioneers, we now call them entrepreneurs, innovators and disruptors," mused Lee. Both Lee and California Governor Jerry Brown referenced the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century in their speeches, alluding to the new breed of visionaries in the solar industry.

But there is another part to this story. The Gold Rush came and went, and Governor Brown spoke to what came after: the prospectors became farmers, businessmen, and built a foundation for California's economy.

Sustainability was a key theme of both speeches, which applies as much to sustainability of the industry as environmental sustainability. It has been a hard last few years for many in the solar industry, with many rapid changes.

While the global solar industry has grown dramatically, overcapacity and falling PV module prices have taken a toll. Many companies which exhibited at past trade shows are not present this year, some of these have fallen into insolvencies; others have been acquired and are present under new names.

Looking at the trade show floor, it is apparent that the Intersolar North Amercia showroom floor is more sparsely populated than in previous years.

This reflects in some way how the geography of global PV markets has rapidly shifted, and as European markets have waned and the center of demand has shifted east, to China and Japan. As this has happened, the United States market has continued to grow, and in 2013 was the third-largest market, at over 10% of global demand.

In this rapidly shifting landscape, Governor Brown pushed the audience to think bigger, and suggested even larger changes to come. “There is plenty of solar to install over the next couple of years,” noted Brown. “A third [renewable energy standard – RPS] is easy to think about… but eventually we have to get the kind of energy where we are not increasing greenhouse gases.”

Charismatic PV leadership on display

New York State Senator Kevin Parker spoke at the opening, after taking a selfie with the full-house crowd, and spoke of his bill S7526-2013 to get New York state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards increased from 37.5% by 2050 to 80%. He also sent a call to arms to the solar industry to support such initiatives.

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“I am here to call on your help,” said the charismatic state senator. “The kind of work we’re going to have to do is to build the political will within each state to make this legislation happen.”

Parker spoke about the major disruptions that 2012’s Superstrom Sandy had caused to the state’s electricity infrastructure as being a major driver in the state’s increasing push into renewables. New York suffered over $7 billion in damage as a result of Sandy, Parker said.

“Electricity is too valuable to our residents and too vulnerable to more frequent extreme weather events,” said Parker.

New York State’s push into PV includes the NY SUN initiative, where 3 GW of PV will be funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) through to 2023. Parker also addressed the state’s transition to what he called utility 2.0, which includes establishing a policy framework whereby distributed generation, storage and energy efficiency are supported.

Despite it being Intersolar North America’s 7th year in San Francisco, Parker also encouraged the solar industry to look to New York State as a base for various vendors’ North American activities. In a reference to SolarCity’s plans to establish a cell and module manufacturing operation with assistance from the state, he invited PV producers to establish manufacturing operations in New York.

As is the norm at Intersolar North America Professor Eicke Weber chaired proceedings at the Intersolar North America opening event and state senator Parker embraced the Fraunhofer ISA head at the conclusion of his speech. Weber also quipped that he was yet to hear a complaint about the event’s Northern Californians location.

A presentation by John Perlin, the author of the book “Let it Shine, the 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,” concluded the opening event. Perlin highlighted that 2014 is the 60th anniversary of the first photovoltaic module, likening the milestone to American Independence Day, celebrated only days ago on the 4th of July. Perlin wound up his presentation of PV’s history, saying that "all electrons are equal."

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