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Intersolar North America 2012: Solar Gets Down to Business

The Intersolar North America Conference in San Francisco has wrapped for another year, and if last year’s theme in my post-show commentary was “Solar is Ready to Launch,” then this year is “Solar Gets Down to Business!”

This year was slightly smaller than last year with fewer exhibitors (though, still upwards of 600+ companies were represented), but there was no less innovation and promise for the future of solar on display throughout the exhibition halls and meeting room — arguably more.

It is no secret that it’s been a tough year for many solar companies; some didn’t survive and the rest have had to endure an uncertain regulatory environment on the one hand, while forced into the role of political scapegoat on the other. Which brings us to the inevitable mention of the cleantech naysayers whipping boy….

Putting Solyndra to Rest

Unfortunately, for many, the big news of the past year has been (say it with me) Solyndra. For those seeking to seize upon an opportunity to engage in political theater, the sad tale of Solyndra’s demise is manna from heaven.

Despite what went wrong in Solyndra’s case, the fact is — as anyone knowledgable in emerging markets understands — it is part of the natural landscape. Some companies will fail as a new market emerges and matures. That’s not to say it isn’t tough news for workers and their families (and yes, in the case of Solyndra, also taxpayers), but I suggest for every naysayer seeking to throw out the solar baby with the bathwater, there are two jobs created somewhere in the solar industry. (There are now over 100,000 in the US solar industry!)

Certainly, to suggest that the demise or even malfeasance of one company should be assumed as indicative of an entire industry — especially one driven by some of the most innovative and entrepreneurial minds available — is foolhardy.

“You look at any emerging market you’re going to have this initial couple of boom years, everybody’s trying to get into it, there’s a lot of money thrown at it; everyone’s excited and there’s a lot of hype,” says Jarron Bradley, director of the Clean Energy Focus Team for BASF. “But then reality’s going to hit sooner or later, so there’s going to be a shakeout where the people that have the right value proposition will survive and those that do not will fall by the wayside. And so that’s bad that it happens, it involves lives and jobs… but it’s kind of to be expected.”

Still Riding Horseback?

The automobile market in the early 20th century was a fast-growing, new, and emerging market. A person back in 1930 could have bought a Nash, Studebaker, Ford; or perhaps a Willys, Auburn or Pontiac. Most of those names quickly passed into history, but none can argue the impact, for better and worse, the car has had on global civilization. The inevitable market shakeout helped create one of the biggest industries the world has ever known.

But what if we had abandoned the effort after the first company went belly-up? Bridle up!

Getting Down to Business

“What has happened is the price of the active materials — the actual cell itself — has fallen so much,” Bradley told me, “so now the percentage of cost are due to balancing systems and all this other stuff that’s around it, that’s a bigger piece of the pie, so where can we reduce those costs?”

In other words, it’s the “nuts and bolts” of making and installing solar power system that is increasingly becoming the  difference between a thriving solar business and a bankruptcy. What it takes to survive in the business of solar power is the right value proposition, says Bradley — put simply, that’s mean high-efficiency, low-cost.

“There are a lot of companies that have very exotic, exciting technology,” says Bradley, “but if it’s five dollars a watt, it’s just not going to work.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that research and development at the cutting-edge of solar cell technology isn’t a vital component for the future of solar. But in the here and now of running a solar business, it’s the companies with the right value proposition that will survive to live another day, able to bring the latest innovations to market.

For a staid chemical company like BASF, offering the essential nuts and bolts up and down the value chain, including decidedly unexciting products like wafer cutting fluids, UV stabilizers, metal pastes, and plastics, is how they define their own mission, their own value proposition.

“…and that’s a trip (trick) because a lot of these companies, because they’re in this phase where they’re basically trying to survive, a lot of times if you’re not coming in with something that increases efficiency or reduces cost they really don’t want to talk.”

A Case in Point

Brian Wildes, founder of Ecolibrium Solar, defines the value proposition for his innovative modular flat-roof solar mounting systems in two words: simplicity and low-cost. Since the debut of The Ecofoot last fall, the industry has responded, because it brings to market reduced installation costs. Wildes understood from the beginning that, to survive, his products needed to bring simplicity and low-cost to the market. And with his initial success he is now introducing the Ecofoot 2 this fall — the “Cadillac” of modular, low-cost, simple, and effective roof mounting systems.

And who is supplying Ecolibrium with resins, UV stabilizers, and other materials? That’s right, BASF.

 “…for companies like BASF, that are supplying materials into this market, it’s really important that you partner with and connect with people that have that value proposition that is going to be long-standing.”

Making the Connection

It felt a little serendipitous for me — not ten minutes after I spoke with Jurron Bradley of BASF, I talked with Ecolibrium founder Brian Wilde about the success of his low-cost and simple roof-mounting systems, and how BASF has been a partner in that success.

So, that’s where this year’s Intersolar conference came together for me. Sure, there were also lots of great products on display, plenty of booths with charming young ladies ready to extol the virtue of the latest solar gadget, and I wish them all success.

After the booths at Intersolar North America are taken down and everyone goes home, though, it’s the key partnerships and value propositions that will push the solar industry forward.

It’s where the rubber meets the road, it’s solar getting down to business.

I can’t wait till next year.


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Written By

is an online publisher, editor, and freelance writer. He is the founder of and the History Blog Project, as well as publisher and site director for the Tom also contributes to numerous environmental blogs, including TriplePundit, Ecopolitology, Sustainablog, and Planetsave.   Tom's work has led him to Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada, the South Pacific, and across the United States. His home base is San Francisco, California.


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