April 18th, 2011

In Solar’s Coming of Age, What are the Next Opportunities?

CleanTech Events -

solartech leadership, solartech conference, solarAt the recent SolarTech Leadership Summit, which took place March 29 and 30 in Santa Clara, CA, 200 industry thought leaders from California and around the country gathered to assess the greatest needs in the industry and suggest concrete actions to take in order to fill those gaps. These included topics from paperwork process standardization in permitting to better defining career paths to fill talent needs at growing companies to shifts on the utility level from transmission upgrades to demand response. How can entrants into the solar industry best position themselves to tackle these problems?

The theme of this year’s summit was Solar 3.0: A Path from Policy to Profitability. With the last steps in the California Solar Initiative (CSI), the longest-running solar incentive program in the nation, approaching, how to best transition to a unsubsidised industry and how to communicate lessons learned in California were hot topics. Markets in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are rapidly growing and have developed their own policies and programs. Conversations with CSI program administrators revealed that utilities, policymakers, and program administrators have not clear collaborated across the country on fostering and integrating solar.

The solar industry needs whole-systems thinkers who can collaborate outside the boxes of traditional disciplines to create solutions and pathways to progress. Perhaps on the most telling sessions showing the disconnect needing this level of solution was the Talent Development panel discussion. In a room of 45, four people raised their hands to identify themselves as industry representatives; a panelist and the author included. The rest was educators, academics, and workforce-development-related staff. The unbalanced discussion that followed skewed academic research findings over industry feedback. The feedback loop between industry, educators, and job placement programs is a clear opportunity for enterprising whole-systems thinkers. Joe Cunningham of Centrosolar, the industry representative on the panel, highlighted the need for those interested in jobs with solar companies ensure that they have a solid foundation in core curriculum for their career path be it engineering, marketing, finance, or a manufacturing-related field. Taking a few “green” classes at a community college or a seminar on solar energy would not be enough. This shows a real coming-of-age for solar, when once there was a time when if you were passionate and priced yourself right a company would hire you, the barrier to entry is much higher now that industry has matured and the job markets exhibits saturation with highly-skilled labor pool from construction labor all the way up through white-collar executive leadership.

Other themes showing areas of opportunity included collaboration across the value chain from manufacturing all the way down to installation to help reach the much-heralded SunShot Initiative goal of reaching $1/watt installed cost for large-scale solar by 2017. Jennifer DeCesaro, Program Lead of DOE/EERE Solar Energy Market Transformation, pointed out that there are multiple opportunities to ready new states not currently involved in cleantech activities. For instance, states like Michigan with manufacturing hubs and underutilized workforce are ripe for cleantech startups. And states without any interconnection or net metering policies are better places to locate these businesses, since favorable policy for solar and renewables often follows job creation surrounding cleantech. She furthermore suggested, as mentioned earlier, the need not only for advanced states to provide its best practices to newer markets, but that a team approach between manufacturing, policy, utilities, and installation would be required to propel adoption forward at a faster rate in lesser developed markets.

Jeff Anderson, CEO of Clean Economy Network, called for a leader amongst the nation’s utilities to develop a streamlined program for integrating solar energy into the grid and serving as a model for the rest. This theme would be echoed many times and later highlighted in the unveiling of the California Solar Challenge launch, a partnership between industry, utilities, and local governments to help consumers, public officials, and California’s solar industry reduce the cost of energy while driving economic growth. This is a model that will need hands on deck in order to be successful and will need keen eyes to disseminate the information to other areas of the country.

To read more about themes and take-aways from the 2011 SolarTech Leader Summit, see my article at Renewable Energy World.

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Pam Cargill

About Pam Cargill

Located in the SF Bay Area, Pamela Cargill is the principal "chaolyst" at Chaolysti and provides marketing and operations support to small and growing renewable energy companies and green brands. She writes about issues facing the solar industry, marketing best-practices, and shines a light on renewable energy at work in her travels. Her background is in solar energy system design and new media marketing. Since 2006, she has been helping small solar companies grow into successful operations. Since relocating to the SF Bay Area from the NorthEast, she has quickly become plugged in to the pulse of the renewable energy entrepreneurial community. In her free time, she enjoys her sailboat-live-aboard & car-free lifestyle, year-round farmers markets, the urban vintners movement, and working in her Square-Foot Garden. Follow her on twitter: @chaolyst