In my line of work, I talk to people from all facets of the solar spectrum -- from installers and business leaders, to engineers and city officials trying to make it all happen. With over 1,000 new solar products in the pipeline in the U.S. alone, the excitement throughout the industry is palpable. Clearly, we're entering an era where more people value solar energy, and those people are rapidly transforming into tomorrow's consumers.
In all the flurry of engineering exhilaration and debates on which technology is better, the solar industry may be forgetting one critical piece of the puzzle -- one that could bolster a booming market or cast a shadow on a failed dream. As demand for solar skyrockets, are we armed with an effective system to facilitate mass consumption and coax the public to convert to solar? I believe the answer is yes, but only if we swiftly solve some key issues that, if left unchecked, will hurt our business.
While the technology is here, the process that brings solar to the public is flawed. The Solar Leadership Summit this month in San Ramon, California will tackle this burgeoning challenge, bringing the best minds and innovators into one room, where I believe we will embark on a critical journey to help develop an efficient business model to prepare for the flood of consumers lining up at the door.
So what exactly is wrong with our current system? Let's use the human body as an analogy, in which we have many critical, yet independent, organs -- the heart, brain, liver, lungs, etc. While expressing unique functions, all of these organs coalesce within a greater system, helping to create the adept and high-functioning person that is you. However, if each organ carried out its own task without accounting for what happened elsewhere, or if there wasn't a brain to manage and disseminate information, you wouldn't survive for long.
Similarly, we're faced with an unprecedented challenge in the solar world, where industry players -- from business leaders to builders -- have not yet come together to build the end-to-end business systems so crucial to ensuring that the industry has the capacity to deliver on booming customer demand. As a result, we could be setting ourselves up for a host of problems.
Here are a few key pain points to consider:
- Visibility: Currently, there's little communication amongst innovators and the "boots on the ground" workers that bring solar to consumers' homes. We need to take a holistic approach instead of working in silos, making it critical for equipment and component manufacturers, material suppliers, integrators, building officials and consumer advocacy groups to have access to new product information. Only then can we streamline the larger market system, cutting out a lot of confusion and time-delays in solar adoption.
- Creating customer demand: If consumers don't know what's available, they won't be able to make educated purchases and may not even spend on solar products. Our current system presents massive knowledge gaps within the industry, where solar advocates aren't privy to pertinent information on what solar innovations and products are coming down the pipeline. It will be critical to close this gap and create a methodology for stakeholders to get the right information in order to drive demand and growth.
- Workforce readiness: Most workers, including installers and inspection officials, were probably not trained for solar 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, for that matter. While an eruption of solar technology translates to more jobs, innovation and business, it also deepens the rift between customer de- mand and qualified workers that bring solar to the public. Workforce training organizations, which have little insight into upcoming technology, need to integrate and collaborate with innovators and business leaders. Similar to the basic visibility challenge, integration and communication will be critical to developing an efficient and streamlined process for the future solar workforce. Moreover, a well-oiled training program will facilitate job creation in today's staggering economy.
Like any emerging industry, there will be growing pains, and old systems will need to be revisited and tailored to current needs. But if the solar industry is to remain competitive, we need to solve these issues quickly and figure out how we can work as one "factory" and not in separate silos. Each day that creeps by without change means fewer customers, slower market growth, and consequently, less business for the industry.
A pragmatic optimist, I believe we have time to shift our thinking, to start looking at our industry through the lens of "running a factory," looking upstream and downstream at how to optimize our businesses from silicon to smart meters spinning backwards. We are still ahead of the curve, but barely. We may be able to turn the system around-but we need to act fast to achieve benefits that are both possible and real. A panelist at the Solar Leadership Summit and Skyline Solar CEO, Bob McDonald has noted that improved visibility and interconnection processes could bump the adoption rate for his products by 15-20%. That translated into $100 million of increased revenue!
Adapting and sharing best practices will move things forward in the tight timeframe that the industry faces. The Solar Leadership Summit is just one, although significant, building block on the path to a comprehensive solution. Our challenges are far from insurmountable with the innovation and focus that the entire solar team brings to the table. We will emerge stronger, more profitable, and ultimately, more likely to be tomorrow's success story by applying our combined talents and wealth of knowledge.
Doug Payne is the Executive Director of SolarTech, an initiative of Silicon Valley Leadership Group and collaborative organization formed to provide best practices and implementation standards that make mass adoption of solar a reality. www.solartech.org