“I thought I’d check it out and get a little knowledge about solar,” said Jermain Copeland.
Jermain was talking about Solar Power International (SPI) 2010’s open-to-the-public night. When SPI -- the biggest business-to-business solar industry convention in the U.S. -- opened its doors, hundreds, including students from at least three local installation programs, streamed in.
High California unemployment rates and federal grants for training programs partly explain the turnout, but a big part is the enthusiasm for solar’s potential among people of every size, shape, age and color.
Take Jermaine, in his early twenties and a month into the solar installation program at Coast Career Institute. “The other day I learned how you can make hot water from a solar array,” he said excitedly. The six-month program, he said, makes him “feel like this is a new start in life.”
Arturo Cedillo, 31, is also a month into the training. A veteran of the construction business, he was looking for a job when he discovered the Coast program. “They’re training us well,” he said.
Twenty-four-year-old Joseph Curl pushed a stroller holding a toddler and an infant. “These are Curls,” he said proudly, his wife Sinead Glover at his side.
Two months into the Los Angeles Trade Tech installation program, he started thinking about solar when President Obama talked about it during the 2008 presidential campaign. “When he began saying that this was the future,” Joseph said, “I wanted to find out more.” The show had him excited about his prospects.
Lots of people were looking for business opportunities. “Technology is always good,” said Robert, an Iranian-American auto mechanic from the San Fernando Valley. “It’s the future.”
Steven Kennedy, a middle-aged general contractor, was also exploring the show. “I’m not building large custom homes right now. I wanted to see what else was out there.” Though Kennedy came to the show thinking about traditional solar panels, new solar shingles due out in 2011 caught his attention. “That’s something I could do for my home and then, maybe, transfer into my business.”
William Fleming, 50, owns Solar Design Workz, a small installation business, in Sierra Madre. In the last two years, business has increased significantly. “I love this product,” he said.
Overhearing Fleming’s enthusiasm, web-based marketer Daniel Gonzalez asked for Fleming’s contact information and the two began talking about how they could build a solar business together.
Andrea and Joe, of Desco Lighting, perform lighting system retrofits. Having seen the opportunity in sustainable products and mastered the intricacies of regulations and incentives, they want to add solar energy to their services. Andrea’s enthusiasm had two dimensions. “You’re doing something green,” she said, “and it’s going to start making you money.”
“And this is an easy way to do it,” Joe added.
Rachel Rubenstein and Natasha Guadino of Haig-Barrett Management Consultants were visiting clients in anticipation of working with the company’s new H-B Sustained division. They were impressed with the varieties of solar technology but Rubenstein raised a concern. “I wonder how sustainable all of the products in this room are,” she asked.
John and Jill, homeowners in Nevada City, California, have had solar since 1999. It has been such a good value proposition that they want to add more. “The part of the thing that’s very disappointing,” John said, “is the way PG&E and the industry in general present the façade that it’s very easy to do medium-scale solar.”
His attempts to get help with the obstacles he has encountered have gone unanswered, leaving him feeling like an outsider in a business controlled by bigger financial forces.
“The why is usually money,” Jill added, as the couple hurried off in pursuit of more information.
Publicity surrounding a talk by DWP Assistant General Manager Aram Benjamin called SueYin’s attention to the convention and she brought Janet along. “I’m not at all educated in the ins and outs of solar,” admitted Janet, who specializes in distribution planning. “Solar wasn’t in the picture when we graduated,” she laughingly observed.
SueYin is in transmission sales. “I think we’re trying to get more,” she said, referring to the utility’s proposed Integrated Resource Plan and its options for significant additions of solar energy. “I think with all of the options we are going to get quite a few hundred megawatts.”
But both agreed there are voices in the company that are resistant to solar. “There is a diversity of opinion in the company,” Janet said. “Some people think it’s not economical.”
The variability of solar energy also raises questions at the utility. “That’s also an issue with the wind farms right now,” Janet said.
Neither had up-to-date information about how grid operators are successfully managing variability. “No matter what the integration of it is, it’s still a challenge,” SueYin insisted, echoing the familiar objection of utility people. “The challenge is how to get it cheaply,” she added.
Maybe. Or maybe the challenge is getting people who manage the power supply, like DWP personnel, out to Solar Power International more often.
Why? For the sake of Jermain Copeland, Arturo Cedillo, this and the next generation of Curls -- and the U.S. economy.