Five takeouts from Intersolar North America

530 exhibitors showed their wares at this year’s Intersolar North America trade show, and visitors returning to the event in San Francisco would’ve been aware that the trade room floor was not as full as in pervious years. Despite this, the battery storage exhibition continued to grow with some bullish about the prospects of storage in states like California.

At the opening of Intersolar, Bernadette Del Chiaro, the executive director of California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA), announced that net metering for solar households had been locked in for 20 years in the state. The announcement, while positive for residential solar, may seem to dilute one business case for residential storage, in that maximizing self consumption and shifting load from peak periods are two business models applied in other parts of the world to make storage more viable.

Storage

In contrast to this, backup power provision, distributed frequency regulation and demand charge reduction were all discussed as viable business models for storage in North America and California in particular. 50 companies exhibited in the storage exhibition and the National Alliance for Advanced Technology Batteries (NAATBatt) hosted a storage workshop.

"Our members were stunned and delighted by the intense interest of solar developers and integrators in storage technology," said James Greenberger, executive director of NAATBatt.

German battery provider Sonnenbatterie was one of the exhibitors in the expanded storage section of the show and CEO Christoph Ostermann said that the firm had produced a bigger battery and inverter systems for the U.S. market.

Ostermann said that while Sonnenbatterie’s residential battery is sized at 4 kWh in Germany, the smallest system it will provide for the U.S. is 8 kWh. Its inverter is also increased from 2kW to 5kW. “It’s simply a larger system,” said Ostermann.

Despite the interest in battery storage technologies, costs are generally still high. Sonnenbatterie displayed its latest “eco” product at the San Francisco show, which featured a slashing of cost/kWh of its lithium-ion-phosphate battery product by half. Costs are now €1,000/kWh ($1352) with the eco, compared to the €2,000 ($2705) of its previous product, the company claims.

Ostermann said that the first of the “eco” units would be delivered this week and he added that while storage in Germany still remains an “emotionally” driven purchase by consumers, as paybacks are long, he expects storage in the U.S. to be an economic one. “In three years the U.S. will become the most important storage market,” said Ostermann.

Tracking bouncing back

On the utility scale front the market share of installations utilizing racking technology looks set to grow in the U.S. in 2014. A wide array of utility-scale installation equipment and components caught the eye of a number of exhibitors, but it was talk of the rapid growth of tracking that was most difficult to ignore.

Solar Frontier’s Charles Pimentel said that a high proportion of projects that the Japanese thin film company is looking to supply in the U.S. are set to employ tracking technology. Pimentel said that given the PPAs signed and the restrictions as to the availability of land that tracking technology is the only suitable solution for the installation to produce the kWh required.

Among tracker developments, Qbotix, based in Menlo Park, California, unveiled its latest generation SolBot at Intersolar North America, which has been redesigned with fewer parts and more positioning sensitivity. The designers cut two of the five motors out of the system, and added a more flexible alignment on the monorail, along with new two-fingered actuator paddles to drive the platform adjustment shafts.

Qbotix also redesigned the mast support, which now is a yoke shape, which helps boost the wind resistance from 95 mph to 104 mph, says Matt Lugar, the vice president of sales and marketing at the company. QBotix now has 80 MW under contract, of which 9 MW will be operational by year’s end, he notes.

Exosun noted that it’s Exotrack HZ was selected for a 30 MW California project being developed by Abengoa and EDP Renewables, scheduled for operation by the of August, according to Jay Johnson, the vice president of U.S. business development for the company, in South San Francisco. Exosun earlier this year announced a joint venture with Soitec to develop a new concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) system. The new CX S540 includes an Exosun tracker supporting up to 24 Soitec CPV modules, with output up to 61.2 kW.

Innovation within BoS

Looking to BoS costs in the U.S., particularly in the rooftop space, there is definitely room for improvement. This is especially true in a comparison with the very low BoS costs in Germany, but even in smaller markets such as Australia. These were the findings of the Rocky Mountain Institute, which delivered the results of its BoS investigations at Intersolar this year.

Among many BoS announcements at the show, the new Spice Solar panel frame was unveiled at InterSolar, with its patented two-groove edge, designed for rapid attachment of both mounting hardware and a proprietary panel connector, according to Barry Cinnamon, the company CEO. The new design surpasses the single slot design of Andalay and Zep; Solar City recently acquired the latter for its frame standard now used by a dozen panel makers. Spice announced the first panel maker adopting its new standard, Auxin Solar of San Jose, California, which will produce 10 MW with the frame this year.

Racking company Applied Energy Technologies, of Clinton Township, Michigan, released its Rayport-I string inverter mounting system for flat roofs. The ballasted rack, which adjusts from 15 to 30 degrees, has a configurable footprint to adapt to any inverter, and permits quick disconnect, notes Aaron Faust, the vice president of business development for the company.

U.S. trade dispute looms large

Reports of stranded projects, shifts of module supply chains and general discussion regarding the U.S./Sino solar trade dispute dominated many aspects of the trade show. While in some cases opinion was united in opposition to duties and the dispute in general, predictably among U.S. project developers and BoS suppliers such as Shoals and Chinese module manufacturers.

SolarWorld, ostensibly the instigator of the trade dispute process, made its legal council in the matter, Tim Brightbill from Wiley Rein, available for interview during the trade show. Brightbill argued that not only had dumping and subsidies been demonstrated, but that the damaging affects these have had on U.S. suppliers was also clear.

“The Commerce Department has examined these things very closely,” said Brightbill. “We showed substantial dumping margins in the first [antidumping] case and we think we will do so again as the preliminary results come out.”

While it may seem that SolarWorld is standing alone in its submissions of dumping and damaging subsidies in the North America PV market, there were other beneficiaries of the action at Intersolar. CIGS thin film producer Stion Solar was present and it said it is currently ramping its production in anticipation of increased U.S. demand.

Leading U.S. c-Si producer, albeit with manufacturing operations in Southeast Asia, SunPower said that while any duties wouldn’t affect its operations, it remains committed to the principle of free trade.

“We believe in free markets,” SunPower CEO Tom Werner told pv magazine. “The extent that it [the trade dispute] has caused pricing to up in the U.S. is only a few cents/W. It’s not a huge driver but it is a driver.”

Korean suppliers such as LG Solar had a strong presence at Intersolar. Some Korean exhibitors even proudly promoted their products as being “anti dumping free.” Ellen Kim, senior vice president, energy solutions, LG Electronics U.S., was a featured exhibitor at Intersolar North America 2014. “Year after year, we meet with attendees interested in learning more about evolving solar panel technologies and other advanced solutions — from energy storage to bifacial technology. Intersolar is a great opportunity to demonstrate our latest high-efficiency solar module solutions to a key audience of decision makers.”

Consolidation amongst trade shows

The number of attendees to this year’s Intersolar was more-or-less steady in comparison with 2013, with exhibitors down around 10%. The third day, as is generally expected, was particularly quiet with many executives heading home on the second evening. While the drop off in exhibitor numbers and attendees has not been anywhere near as pronounced as in some other events, such as EUPVSEC or Intersolar Europe, the question does remain as to whether there will be consolidation amongst shows. For some exhibitors, such as equipment supplier Singulus, trade show consolidation could not happen fast enough.

“Intersolar is more a networking platform,” said Singulus CEO Stefan Rinck. “These [the numerous trade shows] are just too many fairs and we have to spend far too much money on them.” Rinck said consolidation amongst trade shows would help not only exhibitors but also their clients.