Energy Storage, Solar

An Outsider’s Inside Look at Solar Power International

ANAHEIM, CA—Solar Power International this week was a feast for the eyes and sometimes boggling for the mind.

It was my first time to attend this huge event and, like DistribuTECH and POWER-GEN International of which I’m a part of, its exhibition hall dazzled and the sessions produced insights on a grand scale.

SPI is a gathering for the true believers, so very few skeptics seemed to stand out. As a lifelong journalist-and now the head of “all of the above” Power Engineering, I always consider myself one of the latter but it’s hard not to be impressed with the passion of the “sols” who shined here.

In one of Thursday’s final sessions, Department of Energy official Charlie Gay used pure statistics to show how much the solar revolution is changing the U.S. electric generation mix. Plus, it’s not just rooftop PV or even utility-scale solar changing the grid, but energy storage and storage plus solar and wind and home automation.

So much is going on that Gay, who is DOE”s solar energy technologies office director, worried openly about keeping up in with all the exponential innovations going on.

“Coming from government we’re really concerned about being fast enough” to adapt to changing realities within the sector, he added.

During the same session, Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) Chief Strategy Officer Tamuj Deora was asked to praise utilities which are catching on and adapting the fastest. He pointed out several Exelon utilities, as well as Sacramento Public Utility District.

“I don’t think one utility has figured out that they are the clear innovation leader,” Deora said. “It’s happening all over. . . it’s just happening in bits and pieces.”

SEPA and Solar Energy Industries Association produce SPI.

Of course, plenty of new commercial products were unveiled at SPI. Canadian Solar CEO Shawn Qu highlighted his company’s fourth-generation BiHiKu module, talking frankly about the impact of tariffs on the solar industry while expressing optimism that trade-war drag will not hold momentum down for too long.

Qu and his employees at the booth wore hockey jerseys in honor, of course, of Canada’s national sport. Qu also expressed a feisty, deft commentary on the solar industry worthy of the sport.

“No matter what you do, people like solar,” he said, smiling. “Third-party researchers believe next year (in the U.S.) will be flat but the worldwide market is growing. . . Canadian Solar is able to weather all the storms; it’s policy we can’t control. That’s the politicians’ jobs.”

Some companies exhibiting at SPI brought good economic news to the home front. Eos Energy Storage, which showed off its second generation of zinc-based large battery systems currently being utilized in several pilot projects, is taking in an investment from Holtec International in a deal which includes a new assembly plant in New Jersey.

“This could mean hundreds of jobs,” said Philippe Bouchard, Eos senior vice president of business development and marketing. He also pointed out that zinc goes against the usual trend of lithium-based based batteries, but that it’s relatively easy to find and helps Eos stand out in the market.

Energy storage shined almost as bright as solar panels during the conference. German startup sonnen announced its new ecoLINX home automation system which, pared with the battery and Eaton switching, could be a game changer, according to its enthusiastic U.S. business leader, Blake Richetta.

The purpose of any battery system working in tandem with renewables should be to shape load, to help deal with peak demand and, thus, be truly carbon positive.

“We believe this is the magical connection,” Richetta said. “This is real and can take home storage and take that up to a virtual power plant.”

Richetta and Adam Gentner, who is sonnen’s director for Latin America efforts and one of Renewable Energy World’s “40 under 40” also talked about the company’s grid-changing efforts in Puerto Rico both before and after Hurricane Maria.

Star Wars fans also might appreciate that the sonnen (A German word for suns) booth included an occasional speaking copy of R2D2. And there it is.

Southern California Edison, meanwhile, is taking a galactic-sized gamble on electric vehicle infrastructure, promising to invest $300 million on electrifying industrial fleets in the areas in and around the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. SCE’s Jill Anderson talked to Power Engineering and participated in an SPI panel session on utility innovation.

When asked what the future role of the utility was, Anderson was crystal clear.

“For SCE we think of the future of the utility as decarbonizing,” she said.

As noted earlier, SPI is mainly for the true believers, completely committed to solar, storage and other clean energies. POWER-GEN International, which is coming December 4-6 at Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center, will increase its offerings of renewable, storage and microgrid sessions, but it also offers an ample slice of baseload energy topics, including natural gas, coal and nuclear generation.

(Rod Walton is content manager for Power Engineering and POWER-GEN International. He can be reached at [email protected]).