For the next four days, many of the 15,000 expected attendees at Intersolar North America are likely to get a heavy dose of discussions on government policies, new technologies and solar beginner guides for jobseekers.
This is the second of two annual conferences in San Francisco that is taking place under dramatically different economic and political circumstances than what took place a year ago.
The credit crunch has crippled project developers' ability to line up financing. The costs of raw materials and components for solar panels have fallen quickly. Solar thermal power developers are winning utility customers and signing mega power sales agreements that would require them to build hundreds of megawatts, if not gigawatts, of solar farms in California and the southwestern states.
And, of course, there's the new administration's promise to pump financial aid into the renewable energy industry, with the hopes of creating jobs and doing some good for the environment at the same time.
The recession and the accompanying credit crunch have made financing elusive for project developers and installers. Solar companies have turned to the U.S. government for help, but are impatient with what they see as a slow pace with which the government is giving out the promised aid.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February this year, included funding for a loan guarantee and a grant program that aims to make loans and cash more accessible to project developers. But the government needs time to write the program rules and set up the process for accepting and reviewing applications.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Treasury issued guidelines for the grant program, but it wasn't ready to start accepting applications. That is likely to take place around Aug. 1 (see Feds Almost Ready to Issue Renewable Energy Grants). The U.S. Department of Energy has yet to release guidelines for the loan guarantee program.
Discussions about federal and state policies and how companies can take advantage of new government programs will help kickoff the conference on Monday. Greentech Media and the PV Group both are hosting sessions on this topic. Executives from Applied Materials, Recurrent Energy, SunPower, the California Solar Energy Industries Association and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are among the expected speakers.
Unlike last year's Intersolar, this year's program features multiple concurrent tracks, many of which will look at the challenges and emerging technologies in crystalline silicon and thin-film solar panels, as well as in the solar thermal power field.
Over the past year, utilities in California and southwestern states such as Arizona and Nevada have signed several mega contracts for gigawatts of solar power from solar thermal power developers (see Solar Millennium Lands 726W Contract with SoCal Edison, BrightSource, PG&E Sign 1.31GW Deal in California and Lockheed Martin, Starwood to Build 290MW Solar Thermal Plant in Arizona).
Utilities are always on the hunt for cheaper solar power, whose cost is still largely not on par with fossil fuel-generated electricity. Solar thermal power developers say their technologies could do just that, compared with power plants built with solar panels. Solar thermal power developers also can offer energy storage, an attractive feature for utilities that deal with peak hours in the evening, such as in the case in Arizona.
Officials from Solar Millennium, eSolar and the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems are among those scheduled to speak about solar thermal power on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the rapid price declines of raw materials and components for solar panels are making them more competitive against solar thermal technologies, as far as the utility market goes.
Only earlier this month, silicon wafer producer LDK Solar said it was increasing its second-quarter shipment forecast to 220 megawatts to 230 megawatts from its previous forecast of 200 megawatts to 220 megawatts. But its projected sales fell short of Wall Street's expectation.
By some estimates, the selling prices for crystalline silicon solar panels have fallen 30 percent the last 10 months, to roughly $2 to $2.50 per watt. First Solar's cadmium-telluride panels are sold at under $2 per watt, analysts said. Solar panels generally make up half of the installation costs.
Large commercial and utility-scale project developers are likely to reap more benefits from the price declines because they would be buying and installing panels in bulk.
The prices for installing solar at homes also have fallen, though not as dramatic as some would imagine (see When Is the Right Time to Buy Solar?).
Jeff Wolfe, CEO of groSolar, an installer in 10 states including California, Massachusetts and New York, noted in a recent interview that prices for solar energy systems overall have come decreased about 15 percent to 20 percent in the last six months.
But he noted that labor and advertising costs haven't fallen and take up sizable chunks of his budget. Wolfe is scheduled to talk about the residential market at Greentech Media's program on Monday.
The solar energy industry remains a fledgling one, and is attracting a lot of newcomers. Government policies and money that have been put in place in the past seven months are likely to lure even more people looking for green jobs.
For those who want to enter the solar business, the conference will offer tracks to go over the basics of photovoltaic and solar thermal power manufacturing and installation.
Image via Intersolar.