US Solar Market Insight 2013: Collaboration with Utility, Operational Effectiveness

If any of you followed my live tweeting of the recent Greentech Media US Solar Market Insight conference, you would have pulled out a few themes, which I will explore more deeply in this post. Overall, the conference highlighted an exciting year in the US Solar market punctuated by some amazing achievements, like reaching the 10 GW installed capacity mark and seeing 51% of residential solar installed in California without a rebate.

Solar Curator and Greentech Media's own journalist team summed up many of the salient points from the event (on residential solar, the resounding solar statistics of 2013, and the future of utilities in a distributed solar reality). What I wanted to highlight is much more exciting that any statistic discussed at the conference.

Women in Solar Careers are Arriving in Greater Numbers

Female solar pros gathered over lunch at the 2013 USSMI Conference

Female solar pros gathered over lunch at the 2013 USSMI Conference

I would be remiss to leave out this mention, but in my decade in solar, I have many times been the only woman in the room at events and conferences and often been the only technical woman in the room. The representation of women at the conference this year was better than in the past. We even had an impromptu lunch gathering on the first full day of the conference where many of us naturally gravitated to meet each other, network, and share our career stories. The women at the table represented a diversity of roles- a PhD candidate, respected marketing maven, foundation development manager, industry analyst, product manager, and so much more. A number of the panels also showcased a few women in leadership roles representing their area of expertise. It's a great start, but there is surely more work to do. Congratulations to all the women in solar for representing themselves professionally at the event!

The Era of Solar, Storage, and Utility Collaboration Has Come

The enthusiasm, echoed over and over from utility representatives to industry executives, about collaborating to create the new future of solar, energy storage, and grid management was palpable. Many audience members were taken aback, clear as day by the wide eyes around the room, on many occasions as leaders of utility smart grid groups and solar executives on the same panel agreed instead of facing off, as we have seen more often over the last few years and especially months as net energy metering issues have come to a head.

High profile solar vs. utility battles that have been raging around net energy metering in 2013 (see: the ruling in Arizona's APS and the passing of AB 327 in CA). Many solar installers have vilified the utilities in their marketing materials or sales pitches, painting them in a broad stroke as the unified enemy that solar is up against. It's a much more complex story. It's not "The Utility" in many cases, but the utility rates that solar is competing with.

Utilities have many divisions that often never interact with other. Smart grid groups, a nimble and forward-looking division in some utilities, share little in common with more traditional engineering teams. As witnessed at the conference, the new face of solar is one of embracing the relationships with utilities as a partner to solve the new generation of grid congestion, peak demand, and load balancing issues. Solar + storage was the mantra.

Companies are Targeting Operational Effectiveness and Efficient Delivery

From the Operating and Maintenance panel to the debate on whether the small installer could survive in the solar market of tomorrow, the industry's sights are turning to evaluating the effectiveness of operations as a way to continue to reduce the cost of solar for the consumer.

Soft costs continue to remain in the limelight, now accounting for 64% the cost of the system according to analysis from GTM Research presented at the conference. From customer acquisition to design to labor, the most nimble companies are looking for ways to optimize, automate, and create efficiencies in order to maintain profit margins while minimizing risk of long-term operation. Many of the largest solar companies have begun to staff up operational effectiveness teams or are currently hiring for these positions. It's a sure sign of how serious the top players are taking this effort. With so much effort and energy over the last decade to market solar and grab the attention of the consumer, it's refreshing to see focus on improving the delivery experience.

A few panels highlighted concern for planning for long-term operation and maintenance (O&M)- from reducing long-term risk in order to lower the cost of financing projects to fundamentally changing the culture of design/engineering. So far, companies have treated design phase as a step in order to plan an easy and profitable installation. Instead, experts on many panels suggested considering design in order to perform most profitably long-term. See my post on design scalability for more on this topic.

The Future is Looking Bright for Those Who Plan Ahead

The wrap of from the conference showed clearly that opportunity abounds in solar and the market is set to grow over the coming year and years to come. What are you and your company doing to ensure that you compete profitably in this marketplace?