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The Buzz at Solar Power PV: Partnerships to power solar growth

By Tanuj Deora

The big solar industry and energy conferences — Solar Power International, DistribuTECH — tend to get the media attention, but I find the smaller events – like the recent Solar Power PV Conference & Expo in Boston – have a special buzz of their own. With a focus on one or two specific regions, they draw a focused set of delegates who can more easily find common points of interest and who arrive ready to do business. Among the 1,300 attendees at Solar Power PV, many were key decision makers, and the conversations they had — both in and outside of conference workshops — rarely lingered on generalities or small talk, quickly moving to discussions around practical next steps and business deals.

Solar Power PV Conference & Expo in Boston, Feb. 2016 (Source: Stanley Rowin)

The evening before the conference I struck up a conversation in the bar with Bill Taylor, CEO of DCE Solar, a North Carolina-based solar hardware and racking manufacturer. At one point early in our conversation, Bill pointed to a television screen playing ESPN’s Sportscenter and said, “Check it out!” There he was, on air, standing next to Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin. Turns out he and Denny have been friends for a few years, and Bill got to watch the race from the pits.

My immediate reaction was, “What a thrill that must have been,” followed by a wry chuckle. “It’s too bad we don’t get that kind of excitement in our jobs,” I said.

Not so, Bill replied, “I get that feeling all the time, when my team keeps coming to work everyday excited about what we do, helping our partners complete their projects.”

More excitement! SEPA announces name change to Smart Electric Power Alliance here.

He went on to explain how fortunate he felt to have built his company in an industry as dynamic as solar, and how he loved the professionalism and open thinking that he saw rewarded by his customers and project owners.

He wasn’t alone. The mood at Solar Power PV was upbeat. Despite some real challenges facing the industry, attendees were not focused on problems, but on new opportunities — and they were often seeing utility-solar industry collaboration as a key part of the way forward.

2016 Projects of Distinction

The conference kicked off proper with awards for the 2016 PV Projects of Distinction recognizing four solar projects that highlighted the vibrancy of the New England and mid-Atlantic markets and their expansion beyond basic rooftop or ground-mount systems.

While all four are noteworthy, a couple of these projects truly broke new ground. National Grid and Borrego Solar Systems’ Phase II is part of a larger project that will develop and site 18 solar plants at locations that will provide optimal benefits for the grid. PSE&G’s solar-plus-storage project in Hopewell Valley, New Jersey, has turned a regional high school into an emergency shelter that can keep the lights on during extreme weather events and is also part of a larger grid resiliency project.

National Grid is now looking to increase the sophistication — technically and economically — that solar deployment can provide for grid support. Meanwhile, PSE&G will be following the Hopewell project with one at a pediatric hospital and another at a wastewater treatment plan, key public health facilities that need to keep operating if other power is knocked out by extreme weather.

Flipping costs, finding opportunities

In his keynote, sustainable business expert Peter Boyd, former launch director and chief operating officer of the Carbon War Room, reframed the specter of climate change as an opportunity to unlock economic value.

Peter Boyd giving his keynote speech at the Solar Power PV Conference & Epxo in Boston, Feb. 2016 (Source: Stanley Rowin)

Flipping the decade-old McKinsey Carbon Abatement Curve — which shows the relative costs and carbon abatement potential of different clean technologies — revealed the profit opportunities arising from last year’s Paris climate agreement, Peter said. He pointed to single energy-efficient technologies, such as building shell insulation, as well as the possibilities for combining technologies to leverage synergies for expanded climate benefits.

In a follow-up conversation at lunch, Peter turned to his work on net-zero — that is carbon-neutral technologies — most recently for the sustainable business group The B Team and Yale’s Net-Zero Think Tank. He envisions net-zero as an ethos, as well as a technical challenge, with broader applications extending from the grassroots to the private sector and local and national governments.

Peter encouraged conference goers to seize these new opportunities through partnerships, reminding us of the urgent need for collective efforts that have impact beyond the success of our individual organizations.

Voices from the grid edge

The partnership theme carried over into a workshop I moderated on utility-solar industry collaboration. Panelists Ed White, Vice President of New Energy Solutions at National Grid, and Dave Hebert, Director of Business Development at Sunverge, touched on a few familiar topics, such as the disconnect between slower utility business cycles and the more agile tech firms.

One of the more critical insights surfacing during the session was the need to ensure a firewall between cooperation for project design and implementation, and conflicts at legislative and regulatory proceedings, even when the same individuals are involved in both.

Things got really interesting, however, when Ed shared his perspective on the coming convergence of grid interconnection and grid integration for solar and other distributed energy resources. Interconnection, the current priority for utilities and solar providers, represents the minimum requirements for limiting the harm that any distributed resource – solar, storage or combined heat and power – might do to the grid.

Read the SEPA-Black & Veatch report on how utilities are planning for distributed technologies here.

Ed sees that mindset eventually being replaced with a focus on integration, allowing each new distributed technology to be evaluated more holistically from the beginning, looking at the costs and benefits of deployment.

National Grid is actively exploring partnerships to deliver more comprehensive value propositions for residential customers, he said. While he was unable to share details at the conference, which was in February, National Grid recently announced a new program in Rhode Island, linking solar incentives to energy efficiency. The program, in partnership with solar marketing firm EnergySage, also provides National Grid customers an online platform for comparing prices for rooftop installations.

The audience for this discussion was mostly solar industry representatives — developers and installers — and they were clearly impressed with what they heard. In an informal poll at the beginning of the workshop, these solar industry insiders were asked whether they saw utilities as “holding back” or “pushing forward” the evolution of the grid — with most coming down on the holding back side. We ended the workshop with the same question, and at that point, the majority had switched sides, seeing new opportunities for utility-solar partnerships and lining up to talk with Ed and Dave.

Certainly, Solar Power PV had its share of industry debates and disagreements — such as whether utilities have identified alternatives to retail net metering that can win cross-industry buy-in, or what obligation distribution companies have for increasing transparency on system health. But the fact that we can have those conversations in a collegial, engaging, and productive way, with hundreds of other smart professionals from across the industry — many meeting for the first or second time — is an encouraging sign we are on the right track.

Tanuj Deora is Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). He can be reached at [email protected].