While there's still some Chicago chill left in my bones, here are some random notes on last week's Solar Power International 2013.
Markets: I spoke with more than 60 senior solar executives last week. Despite financial travails and disrupted markets, the solar module and balance-of-system industry is optimistic about 2014. GTM Research has tuned its 2013 expectations to 33 gigawatts, with 36 gigawatts forecast for 2014. (Get all the news you need on the U.S. solar market at the U.S. SMI conference in December.) Note that GTM forecasts demand based upon the installed, connected capacity of PV rather than shipments. In some of the major markets for 2013 and 2014 (namely Japan and China), the lag between shipments and installations can be massive, amounting to several gigawatts.
Using different methodologies, analysts at Deutsche Bank Equity Research wrote of a "demand upside" of 45 to 50 gigawatts in 2014, driven by Japan, China, and the U.S. markets. DB also suggested 12 to 15 gigawatts of demand from China in 2014, with Yingli and Trina well positioned for this opportunity. According to GTM Research, Japan demand will benefit Sharp, SunPower, First Solar and Kyocera. SunPower and First Solar did not have a booth at SPI this year.
Several module firms anticipate polysilicon price increases and supply issues in 2014.
Racks and Trackers: A colleague was surprised by the swarm of system-mounting hardware companies at SPI. Mark it down to the increasing relative cost of BoS, the low barrier to entry, and the excitement caused by SolarCity's $158 million acquisition of grooved hardware supplier Zep Solar. This sector is the current focus for cost reduction -- as well as the next sector set for a shakeout.
CPV: The only concentrating photovoltaic company displaying its wares was Sun Synchrony, a very early-stage startup that's looking at personal device charging instead of grid-scale power generation for CPV. The CEO of Cool Earth Solar, Rob Lamkin, noted that there were only three CPV companies remaining: Soitec, Cool Earth, and SunPower with its C7 tracker. SunCore, Amonix, and Solaria might object to being omitted from that list. Cyrium, a triple-junction solar cell aspirant, has thrown in the towel. One of Cyrium's investors wrote, "It's tough to build a component company without a systems market." Fellow CPV semiconductor supplier Solar Junction is in a similar bind and struggling to find a business model or new structure in order to survive.
Petra Solar: Steve Rhoades, formerly the CEO of inverter firm Satcon and more recently at investment bank Stonecroft Capital, is now helming Petra Solar, the very quiet of late balance-of-system and AC-module startup. Petra was well-funded and moving fast with a big contract from New Jersey's PSE&G for pole-mounted AC modules. But with the future of utility-owned solar uncertain, we've learned from sources close to the firm that Petra is looking to move into "adjacent" markets such as networked street lights and controls for municipalities.
Volterra: One of the more innovative solar technologies at the show was Volterra's embedded cell-string optimizer that replaces bypass diodes and junction boxes. According to representatives of the Maxim-acquired power electronics firm, it provides single-chip maximum power-point tracking applied at the cell-string level at an "unheard-of cost structure." Volterra is working with module makers such as JA Solar and Jinko; the modules with embedded chips are currently being certified. A spokesperson suggested that this innovation is the tipping point that moves module-level electronics to the commercial scale. A Volterra presentation claims more than twice the energy gain at one-fifth the cost.
Startups: A special section at the show devoted to early-stage startups evidenced a leaner, smarter, IT-based based group of entrepreneurs. The SPI early-stage startup class of 2013 included Detroit's GreenLancer (a web-based, crowd-sourced solar energy engineering firm), Solar Exchange (a web-based solar auction site), and Faze1 (using lidar and analytics to identify high-value solar prospects).
MiaSolé: Lastly, we spotted a few MiaSolé panels in the Hanergy booth. The company showed a flexible panel with an efficiency in the 14 percent to 15 percent range and a five-year limited product warranty, as well as a glass-on-glass product with a similar efficiency range, a ten-year warranty, and a claimed "three-month energy payback." A Hanergy employee stated that the flexible product would be available in early 2014.