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Telling the solar story at PV America

By K Kaufmann

People like Liz Fuller are why I go to solar trade shows, such as PV America — and why I wish we had a few more similar events where the general public could learn about the industry.

A research analyst at the Boston-based Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE), Fuller was standing in front of the nonprofit applied research group’s booth in the exhibition hall Tuesday afternoon, ready to talk about its new Plug & Play residential rooftop solar system. A video on a computer screen at the booth showed Fuller and her co-workers installing the system’s rackless panels on a test site in Boston, part of the work Fraunhofer is doing for the project, which has funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

Staffers from the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems install the Plug & Play rooftop panels on a test site in Boston. (Photo courtesy of Fraunhofer CSE)

In the video, the panels appear to easily adhere to the roof, and then Fuller ran me through the system’s software, which could eventually allow homeowners to electronically file all required permitting and interconnection forms with both their local jurisdictions and utilities. From purchasing to flipping the on-switch, Fuller said, the labor needed to install a system could total as little as 10 hours, with an electrician to do some of the wiring.

Cosponsored by the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) and the Solar Electric Industries Association (SEIA), PV America is focused on New England solar markets and policy. But this year’s two-day event, Mar. 9-10, seemed to reach beyond regional boundaries, reflecting a solar industry immersed in ever-increasing and accelerating levels of technical innovation, market growth and policy sophistication.

For me, the conference became a series of “aha!” moments, when the one thought in my head was an unequivocal “We can do this.” Whatever the technical, financial or policy challenges that some people see as brakes or obstacles to the transformation of the energy sector that solar and other renewables have triggered, creative solutions can and will be found — and probably much sooner than we think.

Smart policies 

My first “aha” came during the conference’s opening keynote by Matthew Beaton, Massachusetts’ new Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. A Republican who lives in the state’s first certified ultra low-energy Passive House — which his construction company built — Beaton confirmed Gov. Charlie Baker’s commitment to achieving the state’s current target of putting 1,600 megawatts (MW) of solar online by 2020.

The question for Beaton is not whether the state should continue its incentives for solar and other renewable energy, but getting them “aligned right,” he said. Incentives should be high enough to maintain market growth, he said, while ensuring electric utility customers would not pay more than necessary.

In fact, Massachusetts has become one of the nation’s leading solar markets by creating a mix of smart incentives targeted at different market segments, which it continues to adjust as the state’s solar industry grows and matures. One example from a presentation by Catherine Finneran of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state-funded organization focused on economic growth and job creation, is the transition now under way from the state’s solar rebate program to low-interest solar loans.

Didn’t make PV America? Check out Solar Power Southeast here.

Modeled on California’s declining solar rebates, in the past four years, Massachusetts’ rebate program put 1,300 new solar installations on residential, small business and public agency rooftops across the state. It closed in January to be followed by a new program, Mass Solar Loans, which will work with banks and credit unions to provide $30 million in low-interest financing options to help homeowners go solar.

The state is also tackling net metering and other solar issues with a 17-member task force that includes policy makers and utility, solar industry, business and consumer watchdog representatives.

This approach may be part of the reason Massachusetts seems to have avoided the more pitched battles over net metering and incentives now grabbing headlines in other states. The state also stands in contrast to the general perception that solar can only grow in sunny states, such as California and Arizona. While a certain amount of sun helps in building a solar market, smart policies rooted in collaboration and long-term goals of market and job growth may be equally if not more important.

Smart technology

Media coverage of the solar industry tends to focus on the falling costs of panels and other equipment, leaving out the scope and depth of innovation and specialization going on in the sector.

For example, the industry now has two different professional certification programs. The more familiar North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners’ NABCEP certification is primarily for electricians. Meanwhile roofers have the RISE, or Roof Integrated Solar Energy, certification developed by the National Roofing Contractors Association and the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing.

The mainstream press also doesn’t always cover just how cool some of the new products and services are. Paul Grana of Folsom Labs in San Francisco spent both days of PV America on the tradeshow floor, almost constantly surrounded by small groups of solar installers and other technical folk, totally enthralled by his company’s HelioScope system.

More news from PV America — the five 2015 Project of Distinction award winners. Read more here.

This fuel-injected computer-assisted design program can configure a solar system on any roof, down to the wiring and inverters, and provide detailed electricity output estimates in a matter of minutes. You don’t have to be a solar geek to be impressed.

Grana ran demos showing the online system can handle projects of any size — residential, commercial or utility-scale — and can be customized for different brands and sizes of panels, inverters and wiring. For installers and developers, it can provide major time and cost savings for customer acquisition and system design — those “soft costs” that the solar industry is focused on reducing.

Better stories

One of my final “aha” moments came during PV America’s closing session, “Beers with Peers,” which was basically an informal networking session where I drifted from table to table, sitting in on the different conversations.

Working in the field, I know that solar is big business, but even I was a bit floored by David Neale’s description of the company he works with, Radian Generation, which is a solar asset management firm, managing portfolios of solar projects for others. He described how solar projects can now be monetized, that is bundled as securities to be offered to investors.

William Bushnell told me about his company, Greenwood Energy, a renewable energy development firm that is a subsidiary of a privately owned international transportation and real estate firm, the Libra Group. I asked Bushnell, the company’s Director of Engineering, if Greewood had started out as a separate entity that Libra acquired, but he told me the parent organization had decided to move into renewables and started it on its own — yet another sign of the industry’s growing footprint in the global economy.

Looking for more good solar stories? Read SEPA’s Utility Solar Blog here.

Earlier in the day, Christopher Mansour, SEIA’s Vice President for Federal Affairs, talked about the lobbying his organization is doing among Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, educating them to see the solar industry as an industry as opposed to a bunch of tree-hugging enviros.

GOP lawmakers aren’t the only ones who need to to see this bigger picture. Across America, people are intensely interested in solar, but not always well informed.

As it continues to grow and become ever more mainstream, the solar industry will have important and compelling stories to tell. Whether through trade shows, smart policies or more in-depth coverage in the mainstream media, we need to do a better job of telling them.

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