What’s this about a trade case? 4 takeaways from Solar Power International

There are few events for the global solar industry quite like the Solar Power International Trade show. It’s the biggest show, with upwards of 20,000 attendees this year, in the United States – which also happens to be the world’s second largest solar market. It is an event that brings together the U.S. industry for three days of deals, after-show partying and more than a few bad decisions. But also gives us a chance to learn from each other.

Here are my 4 top takeaways from this critical meeting of the best solar minds we have:

1) 201, 201, 201…

If there one was one subject that everyone at the show had at least one – if not a dozen – conversations about, it was the Section 201 trade case pending a decision before the U.S. International Trade Commission. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) has come out strongly against the effort by Suniva and SolarWorld to obtain protectionist trade measures from the Trump Administration, and their position is backed by a not insignificant number of developers, construction contractors, and racking, tracking and mounting makers.

In an 8 a.m. session on the first day of the show, SEIA made no bones about its concerns, with CEO Abigail Hopper warning those assembled that Section 201 could cost 88,000 U.S. solar jobs and noting that she does not have “a magic potion in my purse that can make trade cases go away”.

SEIA made a strong plea for political engagement, but in an interview with pv magazine also admitted that given the independent nature of the ITC, there are few routes to influence its decision. But ultimately SEIA’s target is not the ITC, with Hopper noting that this is a case that will be won by “winning the hearts and minds” of the Trump Administration.

2) U.S. cell and module manufacturing?

Along with the possibility of strong trade action by the Trump Administration is the potential for increased U.S. cell and module manufacturing, and pv magazine spoke with a number of companies, including a large Chinese state-owned entity, that are interested in setting up U.S. factories.

But these expansions are not limited to foreign companies. During the show high-efficiency PV maker Sunpreme announced a 150 MW, three-year module supply contract. This will likely require the company to build new factory to manufacture its heterojunction cells, and Sunpreme stated that it is considering a U.S. location in addition to its current factory near Shanghai.

The biggest of these factories is already underway, and in the weeks before the show Tesla announced that it has produced the first solar cells at its gigafactory in upstate New York, with a promise to begin ramping production soon.

3) High-efficiency innovation

For years, cell and module technology has been fairly boring. With thin film largely confined to only two (perhaps three) large-scale, active companies, and most everyone else doing PERC, there hasn’t been a lot to talk about in terms of cell and module technology.

That has been slowly changing over the last few years, with LG taking the lead on multi-wire technology, and LONGi and SunPower moving into overlapping cell designs. But this year’s SPI was a regular explosion of new technologies, with large PV makers exhibiting a range of cell technologies, including some that had faded into obscurity a few years ago. A quick walk around the show floor showing such exotic technologies as metal wrap-through cells and modules (Phono Solar) and black silicon (GCL).

One of the more exciting developments is LG delivering on its promise and making commercially available its formerly announced back-contact technology. And of course, Sunpreme’s big module deal is big news for heterojunction solar, which to date only Panasonic has really brought to scale.

4) Grid integration

There are also shifts in terms of how solar fits into the electricity mix. While in previous years the focus has been on reducing cost, with large-scale solar and wind as the lowest-cost electricity sources and increasingly higher levels in states such as California and Hawaii, the focus is now on the wonky subject of grid integration of renewable energy.

This was demonstrated by the U.S. Department of Energy’s announcement that as 2020 SunShot price goals have already been reached, the focus will now be on grid integration, with new funding for both concentrating solar power and power electronics.

Smart Electric Power Association (SEPA) has long been working on this challenge, and in the opening session CEO Julia Hamm addressed her organization’s work on this topic, including through the 51st state initiative. Hamm noted that for solar to thrive, the rest of the electric grid needs greater flexibility.

These challenges will not only be a matter of technology, but also of policy, including the structuring of markets that will work for PV, storage and flexible generation. And this may take rethinking some of our assumptions. In a presentation at pv magazine’s Future PV Roundtable, First Solar Chief Technology Officer Raffi Garebedian spoke to how we can get more than 50% of our annual power from solar, noting that with ever-cheaper electricity from PV even moderate levels of curtailment are something that we can live with.

For the full, real-time articles from the show, click on the links below.

A new vision for EERE: An interview with Daniel Simmons

Solar Power International begins with a bang

Interview: SunPower pivots to more conventional cell technologies and shingled cell modules

Axsus Solar launches first tracker

LG’s back-contact PV module is now available

Sunpreme bags deal to supply 150 MW of heterojunction solar modules to TGCM

Report: Diversity deferred, even in solar, is still diversity denied

Solar Diversity, Part II: Why is this industry so white?

Diversity, Part III, in which Frank Andorka feels something like hope