We just returned from InterSolar North America 2012 and here are our reactions to the show, in no particular order, some good, some bad and one really pretty ugly…
IS ? SPI
This was our first exposure to InterSolar; previously we had passed up on the show in favor of Solar Power International (which we have attended every year since 2006). But this year SPI is all the way out in Orlando, so barring another miracle, we will likely have to give SPI a pass. InterSolar, on the other hand, was close at hand in one of our favorite cities, San Francisco, so we decided it would be a more cost-effective alternative. That it was, although we almost paid a high price indeed by taking a way-too sketchy route to the convention center Monday evening! Lesson learned, we stuck to safer, saner routes the rest of the week without incident.
The biggest difference between InterSolar and SPI was in who was there and, more importantly, who was not. It seemed that every time we searched for a particular manufacturer, they weren’t to be found. For example, missing in action was: LG (whose panels we discovered at last year’s SPI), Sanyo/Panasonic, and Enphase Energy (though we did run into a number of their key personnel). This was beyond frustrating since the biggest point of the show is for us to reconnect with companies that we have worked with in the past to learn about their upcoming product lines. Oh well, that’s what you get for not paying the big bucks for SPI!
Despite that disappointment, there was still plenty of buzz around the show.
Revenge of the Micros
Highest on the buzz meter at the show was the plethora of micro-inverter/DC-DC converter/optimizer manufacturers on hand. This was made all the more intriguing given that the king of the micro-inverter hill, Enphase, was not in the house. (I was told that they have never exhibited at InterSolar NA.) Even long-time micro opponent, SMA, was there, touting – if you can call it that – their new micro-inverter. Indeed, in what has to be the most reluctant product launch of all time, SMA had its micro on display (alongside inverters ranging in capacity all the way up to hundreds of kW). Imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery and Enphase must surely be blushing.
No doubt, SMA will be around a long while (with or without a micro-inverter offering) but it is hard to see all of these other players surviving. (As one distributor who carries Enphase now told us, it is really hard to see the value in adding another micro-inverter line to their product card.) It will be interesting to see how this shakes out over time.
We did learn that prominent, Las Vegas-based installer, Guy Snow, is presently conducting his own temperature performance testing between various micro-inverter lines. We are hoping that he will share his data with us when his study is complete.
Storage on Display
Energy storage – more for load shifting/shaving than for off-grid use – was another hot topic floating around the hall.
KACO appears ready to try and jump into that potential market, although their tentative product (shown above) will likely need some tweaks for the U.S. market. Their present device (available in the EU only for now) combines a 7kW inverter with an integrated load management/charge controller device and a bank of batteries. We were told that the batteries are Lithium-Ion and come with a twenty-year warranty, believe it or not!
Boasting a not-so-modest price tag of “around $40,000,” the box, we were told, is targeted toward the “embarrassingly wealthy.” Well, ok, there are certainly some of those out there, but how many of them have homes that would only need a 7kW system? And what about the size of the thing? A house big enough to have room for that rack mounted beauty will need two or three of them to actually handle their needs.
Still, it is a most intriguing product. As utilities get smarter about pricing energy, look for an ever larger market niche to expand for such load shifting devices. Combine that with the possibility of a $2.00/Watt rebate under the SGIP program, and energy storage devices might well be poised to be “the next big thing.”
A solar conference requires opportunities for the solar tribe to hang out and party hearty and InterSolar was no exception to that rule. Quite the contrary, there were numerous chances – on the conference floor and in a variety of nearby venues – for the faithful to raise a toast, honor the memories of our fallen friends, and lubricate the formation of new friendships.
Beyond a doubt, the folks in the Schletter booth win the award for hospitality – whether offering the best coffee on the floor each morning (along with some tasty pretzels) or the seemingly endless supply of good German brew that appeared each afternoon, they really managed to meet the needs of the crowd (and boy did they draw crowds!).
Our solar Tweet-up was a big hit – but boos to The Thirsty Bear which for some reason was unable to seat us all in the same vicinity.
For me, the most touching moment of the week was during the Solar Battle of the Bands, when tributes were made to our dear friend, Heather Andrews, and others who have died in the past year. Solar needs all the advocates it can get, and this was just another reminder of how great a loss Heather’s passing was, and how deeply that loss continues to be felt.
Just Plain Fail
Eddy are You Kidding?
Sometimes shows like this reflect the humor level of a barely pubescent boy. Nowhere was this more on display than on the third floor amongst several of the racking vendors who couldn’t seem to resist making multiple jokes about racks. As in:
“Heh. Heh. He said, ‘racks’. Snicker.” (This amidst images of a busty woman doing improbable things with an L-foot. Or some such.)
Seriously? And then people wonder why there aren’t more women in solar. Hint – dropping the sexist humor would be a good start.
The lamest marketing attempt (in the non-sexist category), had to be this:
That’s right – designer colors for your inverter! Now that’s how to differentiate your inverter product – not by efficiency, or warranty coverage, or any other aspect of its technical design but by featuring interchangeable color panels.
Uh, note to Sinexcel – you don’t mount these things in your living room!
Count Me Out
And then there was Fire Energy, a solar distributor that has a facility in nearby Chatsworth. Always eager to find local supply sources, I asked them about what they stocked. All kinds of things, I was told by the eager salesrep. Well, what about Unirac, do you stock that?
“Yes,” she said, “but it is generic Unirac.”
“What,” asked I, “is generic Unirac?”
“It is product that we have made for us in China, designed to be as close as we can make it to Unirac’s products without interfering with Unirac’s copyrights [sic].”
Wow. So your business model – of which you brag to a total stranger – is to rip off your competitor’s designs and build them cheaply in China and you want me to endorse that strategy? Sorry, not interested.
I suppose it is a sign of the, ahem, maturity of an industry when it can exhibit all the same faults and foibles as any other mature industry, including trade disputes or infringement actions. It may mean we are reaching maturity, but these sorts of actions are not what the solar industry is supposed to be about. Come on, folks, we can do better!