The 2011 SolarTech Leadership Summit In Review

The SolarTech Leadership Summit took place March 29 and 30, 2011 in Santa Clara, CA. Aside from my opportunity assessment report at the Green Light Distrikt, there were some other interesting observations to take away from the event that fold into the national conversations about where the solar industry is heading and what its greatest needs are.

Continued California-Centrism a Roadblock to Success

Many pundits and analysts will agree that California historically has led the solar industry in overall product adoption across all sectors (residential, commercial distributed, and utility), as well as been the primary source of the newly rising class of supporting products like financial products, business management software, niche-engineering, permit and process think tanks, and niche-marketing. However, the elephant in the room was the rise of East Coast states, as Shayle Kann's pointed out in a repeat performance of the toplevel findings of the joint GTM Research/SEIA US Market Insight Report.

With preferences, culture, and incentive programs different from California, it will take new levels of collaboration, insight, and listening/learning cycles to keep the new wave of California market entrants into the East Coast from going the unsuccessful way of those that have been coming in waves before. Likewise, establishing homegrown solar businesses in the East Coast micromarkets will have to spend time looking outside themselves to success and failures in established marketplaces like California's solar market to help them drive their businesses. Industry stakeholders need to find new ways to collaborate.

Lack of Clear Paths for Collaboration

Unfortunately, these paths for inter-state collaboration are unknown. Repeated questioning of keynote speakers, rebate program administrators, and other summit attendees led to a lot of talk about possible inter-California collaboration between stakeholders at the various levels of the value-chain (from manufacturing all the way down to the consumer), but no discussion of packaging the lessons learned for benefit of the emerging markets.

For a summit devoted to a toplevel theme of "let's not reinvent the wheel" for permitting, interconnection, and streamlining of process, this was a disparaging realization. It shines a light on the much more serious concern about the potentially damaging fragmentation in the development of the solar market in the US. While some analysts have classified this fragmentation/diversity as a sign of a healthy industry, it simultaneously indicates an incredibly challenging business environment. Meanwhile, as each state in the union is churning away in a vacuum developing its own policies and programs, unifying support needed at the federal level has not materialized and more analysts are admitting that the federal policies and energy plan may never come.

Lack of Incentive to Collaborate Across Sectors

While program Department of Energy administrators have promoted the SunShot Initiative and called for collaboration across the value-chain to achieve its goals, there is currently very little concrete incentive in place for this new type of collaboration. It has proved challenging enough to bring the right voices and leadership to the table for a think-tank at SolarTech, still a group of primarily California and overwhelmingly Bay-Area voices. Understandably, SolarTech is a Silicon Valley prodigy and will naturally draw from the networks that derive from the iconic hub of technology innovation.

The question remains: how do we build pathways to progress that invite the voices, perspectives and talents from across the entire value chain in the solar industry across the entire country? This, as I see it, is the key to solving the toughest problems that will achieve the streamlining, process improvement, and unification the solar industry needs to open up the new era of success.