SPI 2018: Contradictions, disasters, resilience

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Solar Power International officially kicked off last night in Southern California, as the Anaheim Convention Center and neighboring hotels filled with an assortment of executives, contractors, and salespeople, all brought together by the common threads of solar and energy storage.

The conference’s opening session held in the neighboring Marriott Hotel was well attended, with several hundred in attendance, greeted by our hosts, Abigail Hopper of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Julia Hamm of Smart Electric Power Association (SEPA).

SPI is run by an entity owned by SEPA and SEIA. The first of these two organizations is worth noting, as the former Solar Electric Power Association was originally envisioned as a bridge to utilities, and has a board and membership dominated by utilities. This includes some of the same utilities who are busy fighting rooftop solar tooth and nail.

This would explain why the opening panel on the opening evening of SPI featured three utility leaders (well, really two utility leaders and the leader of a public power authority) discussing their perspectives on the evolution of the utility grid. These ranged from the cautious – self-described as “conservative” – perspective of Mary Kipp, CEO of El Paso Electric, to the more visionary views put forward by Gil C. Quiniones, the President and CEO of New York Electric Power Authority.

But for this journalist, what was striking was not so much their individual views, but that the nation’s largest gathering of solar professionals was listening to a panel of utility/power company perspectives on the opening night of SPI.

However, SPI is not just solar; with the incorporation of Energy Storage International it is a solar and storage conference. And here there is less opposition, as energy storage solves many problems for utilities. During the opening session there was also significant talk of electric vehicles, with Drew Murphy, the senior VP of strategy and corporate development at Edison International, noting the promising EV pilot programs that Southern California Edison has deployed.

 

Disasters

The third presentation at the SPI opening session was given by Salvador Gabriel Colon, a teenager from Puerto Rico whose non-profit Light and Hope for Puerto Rico raised money to buy portable solar electric lights and hand-powered washing machines in the aftermath of the disaster.

There is no escaping disasters this year, with SPI coming one week after the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico and less than two weeks after Hurricane Florence flooded large portions of coastal North Carolina (including a number of solar installations). Adding to this, in her speech SEIA CEO Abigail Hopper spoke to the wildfires in California, another disaster in which many see the invisible hand of Climate Change.

Solar is a solution to cope with these disasters in more ways than one. Solar and batteries not only provide aid after a disaster, but distributed solar, batteries and microgrids can create the conditions for a more resilient electric system, one that is less easily wrecked by power lines going down. 

And here there is significant overlap with the re-imagining of the electric grid. “Natural disasters force us to think differently,” noted SEPA CEO Julia Hamm.

 

Resilience

Resilience is a word that can be applied not only to the properties that solar lends to the electric grid, but also to the industry itself. Last year at SPI all eyes were focused on the threat posed by global cell and module tariffs under Section 201, and while Q2 solar installation numbers definitely showed an impact from this action, SPI 2018 sees an industry that has bounced back.

Despite the imposition of the 30% tariffs on imported modules, the U.S. solar industry saw more than 8 GW of contracts signed in the first half of 2018, more than in any six-month period to date. And given the constant drumbeat of attempted and accomplished regulatory and trade changes coming from a presidential administration that has promised to bring back coal, this is quite an accomplishment.

While they were not addressed in the opening remarks, last week saw two major developments, with the Trump Administration setting a timetable to move to 25% tariffs on inverters from China under Section 301 and also giving an exemption from Section 201 tariffs to SunPower.

The simple fact is that neither the scale of natural disasters that we have seen to date nor the man-made obstacles thrown up by the Trump Administration can keep the solar industry down, or sway the course of the accelerating transformation of our electricity system. 

Beyond the speeches and the intrigues of national organizations, there is a palpable energy already at SPI 2018. Things are just getting started.