InterSolar 2015: Industry Growth or Decline is Up to Us

By Gerald W. Bernstein
Managing Editor, California Solar

One advantage of living in San Francisco is that the world periodically beats a path to our doorstep. For solar professionals and aficionados, this has happened for the past eight July’s with InterSolar North America at the Moscone Convention Center, the show claiming the highest attendance of any solar event in North America. I have attended these since 2012, by which time attendance had reached approximately 18,000 visitors (excluding exhibitors), a level it has since sustained.

What I find interesting in trade shows is walking the exhibit floors, talking with company reps, talking with press people who have attended many conferences over time, and “taking the pulse” of the event. InterSolar expands this opportunity with the companion conference comprised of 45 sessions on a variety of solar topics and over 200 speakers at the InterContinental Hotel next door.

This year’s emerging issue was storage. Conference sessions, press announcements and exhibits provided perspectives on utility scale, commercial, institutional and residential-scale systems with possibly favorable economics (subject of course to the individual user’s tariff structure) and numerous non-quantifiable benefits. But what I sensed as the mood of the show was different. I will be surprised if the organizers write “the mood of the show was optimistic” (as followed the 2012 show) or “the mood of the show was very optimistic” (as followed the 2013 show). I found exhibitors enthusiastic about their products, but I would not describe them as “optimistic.” More telling was the observation of a long-time attendee that the number of exhibitors was down to perhaps 500 this year from 750+ a few years earlier. (And yes there have been recent consolidations, but when have there not been?)

The conference and plenary sessions I attended also conveyed two tones. Industry (including trade association) leaders spoke of the growing number of megawatts and gigawatts of installed PV in an increasing number of states. Declining installation costs were often cited as a driver for future sales, driven both by declining panel prices and by reductions in other (balance-of-system and soft) costs. Individual states have additional demand drivers, such as the proposed RPS increase to 50% in California (in 2030), growing demand for community shared solar systems, and efforts to develop carbon cap & trade systems or markets.

But the elephant in the room (actually, overhanging all events) was clearly the possible effect of the 30% investment tax credit reduction to 10% for commercial investors and the possible elimination of the 30% tax credit for homeowners at the end of 2016. Some speakers minimized these impacts in light of favorable demand drivers such as those above. Conversely, one speaker (citing findings from an unnamed Stanford Business School-George Washington University study I have not been able to identify) warned listeners to “expect a massive drop in the PV industry.”

Yet the dominant theme of speakers was that solar does not have to be a political issue. There are blue and red state customers of solar technology who benefit from lower electric costs. Benefits accrue to rural and urban families. Individuals of all beliefs need to let their senators and representatives know that extending the tax benefits is good for consumers, businesses and the 170,000 individuals employed in this industry.

No one can realistically predict what will happen to the solar industry after the 2016 reduction in tax credits. But one thing seems certain: if we all participate in determining governmental policies regarding solar energy, we can build on recent success. If we stand up for solar, if we become even more engaged, more active, more committed to influencing decision-makers, thought leaders, and policy wonks — that can only bring benefit to our planet.

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