October 12th I did a whirlwind tour of the trade floor at Solar Power International (SPI) to take in the best the solar industry currently has to offer. A few observations became immediately clear:
The Rise of Asia.
South Korea, China, and Taiwan are vying for marketshare in module manufacturing. While many of the players had a solid grasp on the technology, the processes, and the price-war, there was precious little that set these players apart from each other. The interesting difference between the Asian entrants to the trade floor and their German, American, or Japanese counterparts was marketing- as in the lack of any marketing whatsoever or completely ineffective marketing. The solar industry of today is world's different from the industry of even the late 90's when your choices were so few that your marketing just had to say "we're here." The Asian entrants have the "we're here" but most of the marketing materials they presented looked like they were done by an intern with no budget, no font library, and limited stock photography. I think I've seen enough children running through fields of flowers and solar panel pole mounts with lens flares to last me a lifetime. The content, too, did not give me any compelling reason to consider their modules over the booth next door.
I think if the Asian companies want to gain a more significant market share, they should consider studying the marketing techniques of their global competition and investing in some market research to help them better position their companies as more than just a low-cost alternative. Especially when competing with module manufacturing companies that have been in business for 5 years, 10 years, or even longer- integrators want assurance that going with a new player will be a smart choice and that the lower-cost upstart will still be there for the life of that 25 year power performance guarantee emblazoned on their modules.
Solar Thermal is Back.
It's about time, but the California Solar Initiative's Solar Thermal Rebate Program could spur the solar thermal sector again over the next several years. May the best marketed solar thermal installer win the biggest piece of that pie. And take some notes from the failures of the previous go around of the thermal industry of the late 70's and don't repeat the mistakes of the past.
Much like the questions swirling about whether that Asian startup module manufacturer will be there over the lifetime of the 25 year power performance guarantee to service warranty issues, consumers should look for appropriately credentialed installers with experience with solar thermal. Offering customers an annual service contract at a reasonable price can go a long way to alleviate those fears. An annual contract with a five-year term can go a long way to alleviating uncertainty about whether or not the system will actually work.
In system design, controllers have advanced significantly since the 1970's. Companies like RESOL are leading the charge with a full suite of intelligent differential temperature controllers that include options such as vacation modes and night-time cooling to protect against overheating and damage that can occur. Many of these controllers offer the ability for a hydronic engineer to design and program more complex hybrid thermal systems such as combination space heating, pool heating, and domestic water heating systems. In the past, this would have taken significant custom electronics design that would have been too costly for all except a handful of consumers.
Software Solutions are Imminent.
Get ready for apps, mobile computing, push-to-publish websites specifically for solar installers, and software and web platforms specifically for managing operations for solar installers. Perhaps the absolute most exciting thing this marketeer demoed at SPI was SolarNexus- a web-based software application for the complete management of a small residential/small commercial solar installer.
Having been in the trenches of a small solar company from the very beginning up until emerging as a regional integrator with a large staff, I can say from experience that the most time wasted was in trying to develop systems to manage information- from basic customer information and their associated files to operations and project management all the way to billing and finances. When companies spend more time trying to find customer data or related information (associated orders or billing) they waste precious time and everyone suffers from the customer in question to the other customers that cannot be served to the stressed employees.
SolarNexus is offering a slick solution that will help streamline the entire process from site visit and proposal preparation to project management and purchase orders and everything in between. Best of all, it is FREE to use up to 10 users which makes it a perfect fit for most small solar companies. SolarNexus is also working on mobile applications that will accurately collect site visit information like shading analysis and other roof parameters right into their platform, thus reducing error and helping site evaluators determine more accurately the appropriate solar energy solution for the prospective customer. This is definitely a company to keep and eye on.