I don’t much care for Texas, never have, other than that cultural oasis they call Austin, there isn’t much to like really. Therefore, I wasn’t crazy about attending the Solar Power International (SPI) Conference this year because it is being hosted in Dallas. I went anyway as it is an uncertain time to be in the solar business, I wanted to know what is really going on, and I needed to be with my peeps.
A representative from Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) one of the conference sponsor/organizers told me that Rhone Resch, President and CEO, invited Governor Rick Perry to attend the conference to welcome twenty thousand plus visitors to Texas. [Years past, when the SPI was held in California, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger always found the time to welcome attendees to the conference and to his golden state.] John Stanton (SolarCity) told one session audience that his CEO, Landon Rive, visited Gov. Perry personally to urge his participation; but to no avail, and in the end Perry is a no-show.
Gov. Perry must be smarter than he appears, because he didn’t bite the hand that feeds him, namely the massive oil and gas industry. For some strange reason, Perry just can’t seem to find a way to support both – Texas’ fossil-fueled economic engine and solar power – and I just don’t understand that?!
Is the little engine that could (the solar business – representing 1% of U.S. energy mix) really be threatening the big, bad, billions of the fossil fuel industry here on its own turf?
If so, then the solar business has arrived!
I like the experience of registering at an international industry conference like SPI. I look at the official conference program guide and glance at the main sessions and panels, verify times, and then attack the exhibitor list with a vengeance. I find out who’s here and who’s not. That is very telling. The market is in chaos and competition is stiffening, and what may have once been a collaborative industry in its infancy, is now dog-eat-dog, especially for the low margin businesses.
As I made my list of booths to visit, I realized how many are Chinese companies. This shouldn’t surprise, as this is indicative of the real-world global solar industry. China is fully committed to it, especially as an export business, and we’re clearly not. And, because of the recent failures of Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, U.S. government investment in solar is being lauded as the thing NOT to do. Most of this noise comes from the media, national political circus, and the oil & gas companies, but this concern is also shared by millions of Americans. More on this later.
The Dallas Convention Center is a sprawling concrete edifice and not much on aesthetics. Inside the building, it takes about 20 minutes to walk from end-to-end, and I’d say the exhibit floor held the largest number of booths ever for SPI North America. I haven’t seen the official attendance, but my guess is more exhibitors, and fewer conference attendees, this year than last.
- Dow Corning – Solar Solutions
- General Electric – GE Energy
- DuPont – Photovoltaic Solutions
Larry Hagman, known for his role as J.R. Ewing the oil baron on the “Dallas” television show of yesteryear, is now a spokesman for SolarWorld and was seen hanging out at their booth with Matthew Lind, who is an account manager for commercial sales.
Environmentalist and actor Ed Begley, Jr. of “Living with Ed” fame is a featured guest at the Sanyo booth.
- The Solar Foundation 2011 Jobs Report was published and released at the conference.
- Leasing programs are booming and will comprise half the residential market in the coming year.
- The only product in short supply is credit. Expect financial institutions to soak up a larger piece of the solar profit pie.
- Utility-scale solar developers are exploring outside of the Southwest, and are moving away from the multi-hundred megawatt (MW) systems in favor of systems in the 10-MW to 30-MW range.
- SunEdison, a large scale solar developer owned by MEMC, is aggressively moving into the residential solar market. Same for First Solar.
- The Solyndra stink is difficult to scrub off – like a skunk spray … however, political and legal maneuvering isn’t affecting the global market: installations will double, module production will quadruple, driving prices ever lower. It is assumed that most players will make money, except for solar module makers.
- As the module price war intensifies and margins shrink, many module manufacturers are diversifying into additional products and services: BOS, leasing, project development, etc… Horizontal integration now looks safer than vertical integration. [Hey, Ocean Yuan, Grape Solar, might have been right all along!]
- Molten Salt systems are coming to drive down the cost of Concentrated Solar Power.
- Price Break! Sun Electronics Int. announced the lowest price/watt for solar energy … ever. Their solar module pricing at $1.00/watt is the first time in solar history we’ve seen a price this low. It came a lot sooner than most were prepared for and is a harbinger for the future, for both good and bad, of the global solar business. Buyer beware, I’m thinking these might be cast-offs, so check it out at www.sunelec.com.
The Solar Foundation 2011 Jobs Report
In the political realm and in the media, there are questions being raised regarding growth of “green jobs” in America. While I know little about other RE markets and their impact on jobs, I do know that there is solid data about the U.S. solar market supporting the proclamation that solar companies employ over 100,000+ workers in America. This was verified by the publication of the National Solar Jobs Census which was presented at this conference by The Solar Foundation, SEIA, and NREL/DOE. As of August 2011, the National Solar Jobs Census 2011 identified more than 17,198 solar employment sites with 100,237 jobs, a growth rate of 6.8 percent.
If this data is accurate there is good growth in the solar market sector and it is bucking the employment trend in America. Overall employment in the sector was up 18-36% at the end of 2010. Solar (PV) Installers grew 51-66% and electricians 42-55% as compared to 2009. The numbers flux because not every job is “solar-specific” … that is to say some are combo-jobs for large businesses (like developers, general contractors, electrical firms), so the employee may not be working solely on a solar project. Of course, 100K is very small when compared to 177 million jobs in USA, but it is important to note that it is the fastest growing energy segment.
Hype Factor Thousands of people are now being trained, or are considering training, for green jobs, but many still cannot find a paying job. This causes frustration in the work force, especially for the unemployed or underemployed and there is a backlash as many people ask …“where are all of these green jobs?”
People who casually follow the headlines are bombarded by reports of “explosive green job creation” in a down economy, but they don’t see much evidence to support this, so they consider it so much hype. In fact, it is both … a reality (jobs are being created in solar) and hype (not as much as was/is being reported, projected, expected or promoted.
Oregon is doing better than most and our solar energy industry employs more than 3,300 workers, making it the nation’s eighth biggest state for solar jobs (tied with Texas), according to this new study by The Solar Foundation.
Perhaps more noteworthy is how much Oregon’s solar workforce has grown in one year. Our solar industry was identified as having just 872 jobs in the 2010 census, (which we all knew was too low!) and it has grown 284% to 3,346 across 545 different employers, ranking it eighth overall and among the six fastest growing markets for solar employment.
Naturally, sunny California topped the list by a sizable margin. Here’s the breakdown of the top 10 states for solar jobs:
- California – 25,575 solar jobs
- Colorado – 6,186
- Arizona – 4,786
- Pennsylvania – 4,703
- New York – 4,279
- Florida – 4,224
- Texas – 3,346
- Oregon – 3,346
- New Jersey – 2,871
- Massachusetts – 2,395
Contrast this information with the fact that the fossil fuel industry is shedding jobs every year, not creating them. The oil industry is down -2% in employment while their prices and profits are ever-increasing. I’m told they’ve lost 11,000 jobs and the coal industry now only has about 60,000 jobs total in the U.S.. (*Warning, I hadn’t fact-checked this data at the time of this posting.)