What SPI 2014 told us about US solar

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This week Solar Power International rolled into Las Vegas. Final attendance figures had not been published at the time of writing, but the event was well attended and abuzz with plenty of optimistic sentiment. PV Tech reflects on some of the highlights from the week and what they tell us about the state of the American solar market.

The US is on the cusp of an ITC-sunset boom…

With 2014 already shaping up to be record year for the US, the momentum will pick up still further next year and into 2016 as investors look to take advantage of the Investment Tax Credit ahead of its cut from 30% to 10% at the end of that year. Over the course of the show, PV Tech heard from a number of sources that some serious money is set to flow into US PV in the next two years, with utility companies leading the charge.

Indeed, numerous reports reached us that utilities had sent their top executives to talk to supply chain players at Las Vegas and that real business was being done on the show floor as a result. Money is looking for projects rather than the other way around, as one observer put it.

…even though the ITC could be extended

Of course that could all fall rather flat if the ITC is granted a stay of execution, as many hope it will be. Kicking off the show on Monday evening, Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), rallied the faithful to back an SEIA campaign to extend the ITC beyond 2016. Resch highlighted how as the oil and gas industries still receive significant subsidy, it was only fair that similar treatment should be granted to solar, particularly given its growing importance as a source of US jobs; it is unlikely many in the room will have disagreed with him.     

However, as the SEIA’s campaign is unlikely to get into full swing until next year, and any deal to save the ITC is likely to come down to the wire, it is unlikely that the distant prospect of an extension to the mechanism will be enough to dampen the expected boom in the coming two years.

The next two weeks will be critical for US solar

More pressing is the fact there is now only a narrow window of opportunity left for the US and China to reach a negotiated settlement to the trade dispute – as little as a fortnight, according to the SEIA’s trade expert John Smirnow.

Smirnow said that a so-called suspension agreement, the mechanism that would stop duties being imposed should a deal be reached, must be filed at least 30 days ahead of 16 December, when the Department of Commerce is expected to decide on final duties. On top of that, Smirnow said the issue is set to feature in high-level talks between the US and Chinese presidents at the APEC summit on 12 November, meaning any deal must be wrapped up in time for Whitehouse officials to vet and include in the summit agenda.

But the prospects for any deal being reached still look slim. SolarWorld, which is pushing for new duties, is as belligerent as ever about the allegedly unfair practices perpetrated by Chinese suppliers. A negotiated settlement would therefore have to include both a price undertaking and an import quota agreement that SolarWorld deems acceptable.

And of course the stakes are high; in the context of the boom many expect in the coming two years, either an overly restrictive quota, or the imposition of stiff duties should negotiations fail, could result in module constraints in the US as supply from China gets squeezed.

Quality and reliability are becoming more important than ever

Although no major new technology trends emerged at SPI, one noticeable mini-trend that was in evidence was that of quality and reliability. With all of the talk of serious investors now coming into solar perhaps this wasn’t surprising; serious money means getting serious on the performance of assets.

Canadian Solar was the first to show its hand, kicking off the show with plans for a new glass-glass ‘Diamond’ module, designed to display lower degradation in harsh environments.

Next came Sunpreme, which revealed plans for what it claimed to be the world’s first bifacial double glass module, weighing in at a whopping 503W. Few further details on the panel, such as when it will be available, were released, but its claimed performance would certainly represent a step-change in the levelised cost of energy equation.

Meanwhile, at the plant level First Solar said its Macho Springs project in New Mexico had become the first PV power plant to receive a whole-system quality certification from testing labs VDE and Fraunhofer ISE. Aware of the need to demonstrate to investors that it takes risk mitigation seriously, First Solar said it hoped to raise the bar in the power plant business and encourage the rest of the industry to follow its lead.

The US is leading the way with energy storage

The energy storage theme of SPI trumpeted by its organisers ahead of the event didn’t quite live up to expectation. The ‘storage pavilion’ area of the exhibition was located in a far corner of the show floor and never seemed to generate a buzz to match the current hype around energy storage, at least not on the occasions PV Tech passed by.

Yet there was still some real excitement around storage when inverter manufacturer Enphase unveiled its new energy management system at the show, incorporating a new ‘plug-and-play’ AC battery element.

With the US leading the way with storage policy in California and New York, and now with US-based companies such as Enphase starting to come out with cutting-edge storage technologies, the country looks very much as though it will become a world leader in this area. And don’t forget Elon Musk down the road, with his plans for the Tesla ‘Gigafactory’ lithium-ion battery plant. Indeed, America’s love of the car could prove the decisive factor cementing the US’ lead in the storage space, driven by the growth in the EV market.

The storage pavilion may not have lived up to expectations but the rest of the show was abuzz. Source: Ben Willis.
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