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Changing the narrative at SPI: Solar is about finding new solutions

By K Kaufmann

Getting ready for Solar Power International the past few weeks, I have been so busy, I have barely had time to think about the event itself. This year marks my third SPI, and on a certain level, I was starting to feel a bit jaded.

The people, the booths, the parties, Vegas. Been there, done that.


Then I got here, and visiting the trade show floor Sunday afternoon, I watched a small army of workers assembling booths for solar companies from around the world and felt myself becoming as wide-eyed and excited as I always am at SPI. Come Tuesday morning, I know I will want to be in the hall, looking for the next cool technology, the small business in a booth on the edge of the convention center that is bringing some new product or technology to the industry for the first time, trying to get a foot in.

I am particularly excited about SPI’s new Microgrid Pavilion — featuring a mini off-grid system with solar, storage and other technologies — where I will talk with people about the new projects they are working on and say, “Really? Wow! Can I write about that?” Throughout the show — at workshops, panel discussions and receptions — I will hear the collective, almost tribal buzz that comes from the excitement people feel about being part of the solar industry and their particular contribution to it, large or small.

Because the fact is, very few people outside the industry appreciate the sector’s incredible scope and complexity, or the true significance of what is going on in the energy sector right now.

What most people think – or what they are told – is that solar  and wind, and renewables in general, cannot take the place of fossil fuels because they are intermittent. The stories people read in the media are mostly about industry debates — over net metering and rate reform, or utility-scale projects and their environmental impact versus rooftop residential.

But the story that emerges at SPI is very different. Here what you see is a relatively young industry, propelled by the urgency of climate change, and ever-accelerating innovation. With one million installations and less than 1 percent of U.S. energy supply, solar is just starting to hit its adolescence. Like teenagers, we are going through incredible growth spurts, running on hormones, and awkwardly tripping over our own feet. And like teenagers, we often see every bump in the road in extreme, cataclysmic terms.

Certainly, the challenges we face are real, highly complicated and do not lend themselves to one-size-fits-all solutions. But let us remember that these problems grow out of our success — they are good problems to have — and, in many ways, we are making things up as we go along.

Yes, solar is intermittent. But the industry is now clearly focused on finding ways to solve that problem — combining storage and other technologies to make solar what in the industry is called “dispatchable.”  Yes, we have debates over net metering and rate reform. But, across the country, utilities and solar organizations are starting to sit down and figure out how to move forward together, with agreements that balance the economic interests of all stakeholders.

Most exciting, we are seeing the next generation of solar and utility professionals coming into the industry, young people bringing new visions and new ways of working. They will look at our current and future challenges and find solutions we can barely imagine today.

The most significant thing is that — whatever our current challenges — the solar industry will learn and grow through them. We are focused on solutions.

The Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) is sponsoring a series of panels and other events at SPI that are centered on providing platforms and processes for fostering cross-industry collaboration and solutions.

Solar Plus: How Solar Got Smart, Tuesday, 8-9 a.m., Westgate Pavilion Ballroom: SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm leads a panel discussion on the newest thinking on how combining solar with other distributed technologies can provide solutions that benefit customers, utilities and the grid.

2016 SEPA Solar Power Player Awards, Tuesday, 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m., Westgate Hotel, Pavilion 10: SEPA honors the winners of its yearly awards honoring utilities, their industry partners and individuals who are creating new, innovative models for increasing the amount of solar on the grid.

Turning Today’s Vision Into Tomorrow’s Reality: What It Takes to Reinvent an Electricity Market, Tuesday, 1-2 p.m., Room N251:  A panel discussion on SEPA’s 51st State Initiative and the collaborative processes for industry change it has developed.

For information on these and other SEPA events and programs at SPI, visit the SEPA booth, No. 1959.