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“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.” ― Lawrence Clark Powell

Solar Power International 2017 - Practical Application with the Customer in Mind

Posted on 9/25/2017 by in microgrid solar
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Phil Davis, VP Planning and Partners for Sterling Energy Assets, provides insight on the 2017 Solar Power International Conference, which took place September 10-13 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, NV.

SEPA invited me to teach at their microgrid workshop in advance of the SPI 2017 show, also powered by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The session was well attended and a great deal of fun, but I was the one who learned some lessons.

This year’s Solar Power International (SPI) show was noteworthy both for the sheer number of attendees (22,000) and for the undercurrents. Solar power is mature and now a commodity. The politics of jockeying for various incentives notwithstanding; pricewise, solar is in a race to the bottom. Not coincidentally, the Solar Electric Power Alliance has become the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) – and that is a good thing.

The energy industry knows it is essential to the economy. So is clean water, transportation, public safety, and all  other things bound together in the public notion of “infrastructure”. Then there’s the environment. We don’t want our infrastructure to impinge on the environment.  And about the economy: we keep re-learning that, “It’s the economy, stupid,” both politically and commercially.

This year’s SPI show reflected that. It was less about “We” and more about “They”.

“They” are the people who are not “We”: customers. They are the source of all revenue, and they have their own interests which typically include infrastructure only when there is a disruption to it. There are many ways to resolve disruptions and many more ways to prepare. The key is not to push products, but rather to understand customers’ interests, and to help them manage the path to their goals.

In other words, today’s market is less about which product has the richest incentive and more about how to add the most value, as the customer defines it. For example, take microgrids.

 Attendees to SPI’s preshow microgrid workshop learned a great deal about the structure, use cases, and examples in place today. For the most part, economics was off the record. There was much said about “stacked value,” which is the sandpit of complexity that turns off customer interest. “They” may understand it, but customers want to focus on their own needs, not our justifications.

Privately, one large multinational told me that they can justify microgrids, economically, if they do not include storage or renewable generation. In other words, old school gas-fired CHP wired behind a meter works well. Another project manager told of a solar-intense microgrid that over-produced energy for the local need. Sufficient battery storage was too expensive. Ultimately, the solution was to use the excess power to create hydrogen. As it turns out, there was a big local market for hydrogen with oil refineries and hydrogen powered vehicle fleets nearby. In both cases, microgrids were economic, with one being very traditional while the other was designed around local area specifics. Both approaches start where the customer is.

A large part of the show floor highlighted hydrogen-making technologies. An even larger section was devoted to asset management; software-based tools that ease decision making on when to use different power sources, and making the task of managing microgrids simpler.

One fascinating section featured a live microgrid powered independently by a solar array outside the building. This microgrid exhibited extensive use of DC to power lights, computers, and appliances. Native solar DC powering native DC loads is as efficient as it gets. Thomas Edison was a big believer in DC. Sadly for him, local generation was not practical in his day. Now it is. New builds and deep remodels are much less costly because DC infrastructure is cheaper to buy and easier to install.

This exhibit was sponsored by the Emerge Alliance, a group devoted to DC. Perhaps the most significant element of the display was that it also made use of traditional AC from the grid. Paul Savage, who heads the alliance, explained they used DC where it offers the greatest benefits, and converted to AC when that is the best option. Again, starting where the customer is.

Other key aspects of the show:

  • ·        Chinese manufacturers, still providing the lowest prices in the industry, maintained heavy representation at the conference.
  • ·        Racking systems and related hardware displays outnumbered pure solar.
  • ·        Delivered battery systems costs are declining, but only gradually. $450-$650 per kWh seems to be the sweet spot.
  • ·        The Department of Energy (DOE) was there with “startup alley” – a collection of grant winners. These seemed more oriented to making renewable energy easier to implement rather than about the energy itself. DOE’s “orange button” was a key part of this.
  • ·        Residential solar was a far greater presence that commercial or institutional. A combination of technologies and the increasing sophistication of thin-film solar is taking the ugly out of the product. We can’t be far from the day when all roofing shingles will be solar capable because there will be no reason for them not to be.
One smaller but fun display was a self-contained solar powered device that could make 1,000 gallons of clean water per day. It was modular and therefore scalable. The vendor’s target is third world villages, but this suggests that local distributed generation soon may be joined by local distributed water. A large tractor-trailer can haul about 10,000 gallons of water, or several of these machines. Which would be more practical for hurricane relief? The “waste product” of this process is very cold air which also would be useful for nursing homes and relief centers. This vendor is a small company, but it  deserves success.

The exciting part of this year’s show was the vast array of real applications that can improve our world in fundamental ways rather than the underlying technology. “We” are ready to meet “Them” where they are. At last.

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