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Putting Your Finger on the Pulse of Solar at SPI

By K Kaufmann

Hitting the trade show floor at Solar Power International (SPI) is generally an exercise in sensory overload. No matter where you look, you see company names and logos on slickly designed booths in various bright colors, all clamoring for your attention.

The big, well-known companies in the solar industry stake out prime real estate in the center of the exhibition hall — and as you walk the aisles you see panels, racking systems and increasingly, storage batteries displayed, along with videos and pictures of completed projects.

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But break away from the pack and head for the outer margins of the hall — as I did on the second day of this year’s SPI at the Anaheim Convention Center — and you can find what I like to think of as the real life-blood of the solar industry. In smaller, less flashy booths, the companies here reflect both the extent of solar’s integration into our economy and the innovation that is driving the industry’s continued growth.

The crew at PEP Brainin’s booth stood behind a small table displaying a range of precision components that are used in solar inverters and racking, as well as in medical devices and aerospace equipment.

The tiny silver and copper contacts and rivets Stephen Mallett, manager of sales development, cupped in the palm of his hand while we talked are “far down on the supply chain,” he said.

Mallett could not tell me what percentage of the company’s business comes from solar or the energy sector in general, but obviously, it’s enough to bring the Massachusetts company to SPI, to have a presence among the other industry players.

Pictures of a cleanly designed, innovative solar-powered street light drew me to the Kaal Masten booth nearby. The Dutch company is ready to break into the U.S. market with the “Spirit” street light which has a square shaped post, lined with solar panels on all four sides.

The off-grid panels can pump out power most of the day — with high levels of efficiency — and then  store it in batteries for night time use in the street light’s LED bulbs,  said Kyb Fugfugosh, the firm’s U.S. distributor. Each street light is a self-contained, plug-and-play unit, according to a company brochure.

SPIRIT Picture 3

Spirit street lights are already lining thoroughfares in Europe and the Middle East, said Reza Dix, a company executive. With a focus on cracking the California market, Kaal Masten also has plans to introduce a “landscape” model with wood-look trims for parks and other specialized uses, he said.

My last stop along the outer aisle of the exhibit hall was another table-top display at the SunRise Solar booth, where company President Bill Keith was demonstrating his solar-powered attic fans. The technology here is not new, and SunRise has been selling its compact, practical fans for more than a decade, marketing them mostly to roofers.

Coming to SPI is a leap of faith for Keith as he continues to refine his technology and explore the potential for working more closely with solar installers. The newest models of his attic fans have the ability to produce power under low-sunlight conditions, using circuit boards that can monitor power flow and adjust the fan speed accordingly, Keith explained. Even putting the small solar panel on one of the fans up near the booth lighting started the blades turning.

Phone calls from a few installers in Hawaii gave Keith the idea to focus a stronger marketing effort on the solar industry, he said. The Hawaiian installers had found that installing a solar-powered attic fan, such as SunRise, helped cool down a house, easing stress on air conditioning systems and allowing them to size rooftop systems a bit smaller.

Keeping roofs cooler also improves the efficiency of rooftop panels, which produce less power in high temperatures.

This is one example of the kind of grassroots innovation that will continue to push the solar industry forward, with improved technology opening up new markets and partnership potential.

It took me maybe an hour to cruise the segment of the outer edge of the SPI tradeshow, where I found the three businesses profiled here — and I didn’t even get to Startup Alley — where, as its name implies, the cutting edge innovation is being rolled out.

In his keynote address at SPI, earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden noted that along with clean energy, the solar industry is also generating good paying jobs that a person can raise a family on, educate children.

“The idea that we don’t think renewable (energy) is so critical to the future of this country and won’t do everything to grow this industry is absolutely absurd,” he said.

The glitz on the trade show floor makes a good show, but it’s all the small moving parts behind it — the committed, creative companies and individuals — that are the real compelling story going on in the solar industry today.

Solar Power International

PEP Brainin

Kaal Masten

SunRise Solar