Announcements are already flowing in advance of the Solar Power 2007 conference, which kicks off in Long Beach, Calif., with a reception Monday evening.

Fat Spaniel Technologies on Monday launched a new product, Fat Spaniel Insight Manager, to manage renewable-energy systems across multiple sites at the same time. Envision Solar said Monday it is building a solar-powered charging station for electric cars and plug-in hybrids for the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Last week, SMA America released a new inverter that it claims is easier to use and provides 20 percent more wattage than previous models. Inverters convert renewable energy from direct current (DC) to usable alternating current (AC).

KACO Solar also announced it would launch a new inverter at the show this week. And Lumeta said it would launch a new roof-integrated solar panel that would reduce installation time and cost.

These are only a few examples of announcements that so far seem to focus more on easing consumer use and installation rather than on new technologies in solar cells and modules.

Of course, new equipment advances are still needed and still coming (see Earth2Tech's solar roundup). And announcements also reveal plenty of manufacturing growth. Schott Solar last week announced plans to expand U.S. production by more than 60 megawatts, Global Solar Energy said it would build a 30-megawatt thin-film plant in Berlin and XsunX said it would present plans to build a 100-megawatt solar-panel manufacturing plant at the conference this week.

But developments making it easier to install and use solar power represent a significant shift that's necessary to grow the solar market.

After all, in the United States more than half the cost of solar-power systems is due to installation, not equipment, according to Photon Consulting (see Beating the Odds).

And aside from the cost, the sheer difficulty of installing solar-power systems can be a deterrent.

Bob Epstein, co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs (also known as E2), and William Reilly, senior advisor for the Texas Pacific Group and founding partner of Aqua International Partners, discussed these problems at the Cleantech Venture Forum in February, and Topline Strategy Group and Sunlight Electric published a study about them in November.

Because a shortage of solar-grade silicon has limited the supply of solar equipment in the last two years, solar companies have been able to sell as much as they can make.

But a more concentrated focus on making it easier and cheaper to install and use solar power shows that companies are preparing for a time when the shortage is over and competition for customers will begin (see Silicon Steals the Spotlight, Again).

The conference, which last year attracted more than 6,500 attendees, expects to bring together 10,000 solar enthusiasts this year.