Reporting from SPI: Solar -- An all-American success story | SEPA Skip to content

Reporting from SPI: Solar — An all-American success story

When I checked in at the Marriott at the Anaheim Convention Center Sept. 13, the front desk staff were all wearing Solar Power International buttons on their lapels. Another fun touch, the key cards for my room where also themed for the event, bright orange with a rising sun on the bottom and emblazoned with sly, slick catch phrase: Put It Where the Sun Shines.

If it were not completely clear by now, let me spell it out. Solar Power International (SPI), North America’s largest solar trade show, is in town for a four-day run, Sept.14-17, celebrating the industry as an all-American success story.

  • Vice President Joe Biden will keynote the trade show’s general session on Wednesday, becoming the first sitting U.S. vice president to speak at a solar industry event such as SPI.
  • Event co-sponsor the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) will host a special networking event for some of its members Sept.14 at Angels’ Stadium.
  • Finally, the SPI Block Party, the event’s annual, huge networking and party event, is being held at the ultimate all-American venue — Disneyland.


More than 15,000 attendees are expected at the event, which also opens as the industry continues to score record-breaking growth. New figures from the second quarter of 2015 show that the nation installed 1,393 megawatts (MW) of photovoltaic solar, a new high for the quarter.

The Q2 report from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), SPI’s other main co-sponsor, and Greentech Media, also put total installed solar across the U.S. — both rooftop and utility-scale — at more than 20 gigawatts, enough to power 4.6 million homes.

Beyond its perfect solar weather — the backdrop for my arrival Sept. 13 was a cloudless California sky, pouring down sunshine — the state’s policy landscape is also particularly appropriate for this year’s SPI, showing both the opportunities and challenges ahead.

First, the trade show comes on the heels of the California Legislature upping the state’s renewable energy mandate, which currently requires utilities to procure 33 percent of their power from renewables by 2020. Th e new law, now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, will reset the state’s energy mix to 50 percent renewables by 2030, while increasing buildings’ energy efficiency by 50 percent.

At the same time, the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is engaged in critical discussions about how to reform the state’s utility rate designs to bring them in line with the kind of distributed grid with high levels of solar that its renewable goals are in the process of creating.

Media coverage of the issue has focused primarily on its most divisive aspect — net metering, and specifically whether rooftop solar owners should be compensated for excess power they feed into the grid at full retail rates, as is currently the case.

In separate proposals filed last month, two of the state’s three largest utilities asked that net metering compensation be cut by more than 40 percent. The two utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, also want to increase fixed fees solar owners pay.

Both changes are needed, the companies say, to ensure they have enough revenue to maintain and operate the grid that all customers rely on for power, without shifting costs from solar to nonsolar customers.

Some solar industry leaders have countered that the utilities’ proposals would kill California’s solar market.

The slightly overheated debate thus far has obscured what is really going on, which the headline on one article on the Greentech Media website rightly described as simply “setting the stage” for the debate.

Anyone who has followed a PUC proceeding — with its seemingly endless rounds of proposals followed by comments, followed by meetings and proposed decisions and further comments  — knows that any final decision will be the result of a collaborative process.  None of the parties involved will get everything they want, but each side will likely get enough to proclaim some level of success — and room for improvement — and the state’s solar market will adapt and continue to grow.

Similar proceedings are underway in a number of states — Hawaii, Minnesota and New York — as policymakers attempt to balance the need for reliable, affordable power with fast-changing technologies and consumer demands for clean energy and more choice in energy services.

The solutions being developed will be tailored for local markets, and they will, by their very nature, be somewhat experimental. Some new ideas will be more effective than others; each will build on lessons learned.

But, at this point, the main message of SPI is that solar is now part of the mainstream of the U.S. energy system. The industry is big enough and mature enough for stakeholders to work together toward common goals and to navigate whatever road bumps that may emerge going forward.

Which is, when you stop to think about it, what the all-American success story is really all about.

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s Communication Manager. She can be reached at [email protected].