Surprisingly quietly, the solar industry kicked off Solar Power International 2010, the nation’s biggest business-to-business solar conclave, Tuesday morning. Only a quarter of the expected 30,000 participants were in attendance. Opening session keynoters held forth with upbeat fanfare in defiance of the small crowd and the foggy Los Angeles morning. And why not? Prognostications are for sustained solar growth despite a largely stagnant economy.

The U.S. Solar Market Insight Report, from the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) and GTM Research, was released in conjunction with the conference opening and, based on first half 2010 numbers, the solar industry’s installed capacity will more than double this year and see record gains in the photovoltaic, solar power plant, solar heating and cooling, solar water heating and solar pool heating sectors.

“Solar,” said Rhone Resch, SEIA’s President and CEO, “is one of the few bright spots in our economy today.”

U.S. solar manufacturing is also expanding. “Manufacturers produced more than a third of the world’s polysilicon here,” Resch said. “And over 500 megawatts of cells and 500 megawatts of modules.”

First Solar, Trina and SunPower, Resch said, are among the five fastest-growing U.S. energy businesses. Seven of the eight fastest growing firms are in the solar industry. “That includes Standard Solar,” Resch said, “with -- get this -- a 3,274% growth rate over the last three years.”

Word on the street is that VCs are done with solar for the time being because of the high capital expenditures needed. But, buoyed by a new role being played by utilities, the industry is undaunted. 

Resch and Julia Hamm, President and CEO of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), came on like cheerleaders with the convention’s themes of teamwork and collaboration.

Resch described how solar energy is now omnipresent, with installations in locations ranging “from crayon factories to landfills,” he said. “We now live in a world where you can be born in a solar hospital, be educated in a solar school, go to a solar college and, while there, drink beer brewed in a solar brewery, get married in a solar church, go to work in a solar office building, watch your favorite baseball team in a solar stadium and live in a country protected by armed forces powered by solar energy.” He hopes, he concluded, to end up “in a solar-powered nursing home.”

Resch went on to envision the capability of adding ten gigawatts of new installed solar capacity annually, a fitting ambition for an industry that is expecting 2010 to be its first ten-gigawatt year globally. With such a capability, Resch said, the solar industry would go from providing its present 100,000 jobs to providing 220,000 U.S. jobs, and would replace ten coal plants every year.

Resch set out three objectives for what he dubbed “Team Solar.” He wants to put the solar industry on a level playing field with the other major U.S. energy sources and change the present fact that “the fossil fuels are grotesquely over-subsidized.”

Resch also called for “a whole new approach to solar financing” which, he admitted, is the “biggest obstacle to growth.” He celebrated the decision by the Obama Administration to restore solar panels to the roof of the White House as a symbol of the value of rooftop solar.

Finally, he called for California’s solar industry to fight Proposition 23, the dirty energy initiative. “Do not let big Texas oil money tell you how your state should be run,” Resch said. “Play hard, play to win, go Team Solar!” he concluded.

Hamm emphasized collaboration, quoting Charles Darwin’s observation that “those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” She said the solar industry’s increasing collaboration with utilities has been key to its recent sustained growth. In 2009, Hamm cited, “GDP was down 2.6 percent, energy use was down 4 percent, [and] electricity use was down 2.4 percent. But,” she said, “the overall solar capacity in the U.S. was up 37 percent” and, she concluded, “the top ten utilities with the most solar in their service territories saw a 66 percent increase.”

The point, Hamm emphasized, is that where the solar industry and utilities collaborate, solar use leaps ahead. She cited several important examples of solar-utility collaborations, including those between New Jersey’s PSE&G and Petra Solar, the Salt River Project and Tessera Solar, Southern California Edison and NRG, and San Francisco’s PG&E, SolarCity and SunRun.

Hamm identified three prominent challenges the solar industry and utilities have in common: the decoupling of profit from the volume of electricity sales, the building of a smart grid, and finding cost-effective large-scale energy storage. To emphasize what collaboration might accomplish, she concluded by quoting a business leader who once said, “The secret is to gang up on the problem rather than each other.”

Revealingly, the session ended with an interview of Twitter founder Biz Stone by television personality Debra Norville while the audience disinterestedly streamed out of the auditorium. It was telling because Stone was a last-minute replacement for PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, who surely would have drawn more attention, but was forced to cancel because of the ongoing investigation into the September explosion of his company’s natural gas lines in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nothing could have said how important solar can be to utilities more clearly.