This is Part II of our coverage of Intersolar North America 2016. See Part I here.

Intersolar, as usual, covered a range of solar topics. But some basic principles were common to all of these. Prominent among them were exhortations to focus on the customer — which means simplicity, transparency, and giving people what they want.

Loans are in, leases are … ?

At a session on financing solar from the customer perspective, simplicity and transparency were the words of the day. Pamela Cargill of Chaolysti skillfully moderated a panel that spanned the residential and commercial sectors.

Solar finance is still a nascent industry, said Luna Federici of Spruce Finance, though it’s no longer the “wild west.”

Three factors, she said, are key to the industry:

  • Consistent access to stable and cheap capital is essential.
  • Consumer protection is becoming increasingly important, an issue any time a financing product becomes big.
  • Simplicity is crucial. This also means finding the right product for the right customer — at consumer price points that make it hard to say no.

Ted Fawcett of Mosaic echoed the emphasis on simplicity, and the need to design financing specifically for solar. He pointed to how Mosaic has simplified their solar loan and streamlined their installer portal to reduce friction.

Fawcett also emphasized a strong trend toward ownership. If you’re not convinced, you’d do well to pay attention to something Federici noted: there’s a portion of solar customers who are dissatisfied specifically because they wished they owned their systems instead of leasing them.

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Pamela Cargill, seated, moderates the finance panel

In other cases, solar customers aren’t happy because they haven’t gotten the savings they’d hoped for. This is another important point we should all heed. As our industry grows, it’s crucial for us to be straightforward with potential customers and not mislead them about what they can expect.

Spruce Finance takes this so seriously that they have a call with each consumer they sign up, to ensure the customer understands the debt obligation they’re signing up for.

Does the trend toward ownership mean the end of leases and PPAs?

The short answer is no — at least, for now. For one thing, it’s easier to raise capital for loans. But more important from the customer perspective, when the ITC winds down, said Federici, leases and PPAs may not make sense anymore.

Storage, storage, and more storage

Yes, storage has become more and more prominent at Intersolar. This year was no exception, with about 100 companies exhibiting at the ees, the energy storage section of the show.

While not quite ready for prime time for the residential market, storage may yet surprise people by moving fast into viability.

In the meantime, we’re seeing interesting trends like SolarEdge ramping up to be the market leader in homes that are battery-backed, energy-managed, and grid-responsive. You can get more background and insights on their plans in this GTM article.

Also at Intersolar, The Solar Foundation released a discussion paper taking a look at how the expansion of storage could affect the solar workforce. Of course, their conclusions are preliminary, since the future of storage is still murky. But even these initial predictions are strong.

The Solar Foundation expects about 27,000 solar and storage related jobs in 2021. This includes approximately 9,000 storage installation jobs tied to solar, and 18,000 solar installation jobs that will be created only when storage is viable.

Solar innovation is alive and well!

The Powerhouse Pavilion, located centrally on the second floor of the exhibition, provided ample evidence that innovation is going strong in solar. The pavilion featured 10 early-stage solar software and fintech startups. We were treated to a demo of UtilityAPI, and saw friends from Solar Nexus, PVComplete, and more.

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Powerhouse started in 2013 with just two startups, Mosaic and Powerhive, and has hosted 40 others since then — including our own Sunible, which was acquired by MyDomino.

At Intersolar this year, Powerhouse also hosted its second Powerhouse Circle, a solar-specific “speed dating event” for investors, executives, and entrepreneurs, with an impressive roster of sponsors.

The Powerhouse panel on The Growth Company Forum was an inspiring illustration of how innovative startups can serve real needs in our world. Volta Power, for example, was born of the realization that in some locations, hospitals don’t have the power they need to refrigerate medications. Their work has since expanded to help farmers in developing areas. SunSwarm, a community solar marketplace, is attempting to address the 75% of us here in the U.S. who can’t put solar panels on our own roof.

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We need innovators like these to move solar forward, so it’s great to see them in a position of prominence at a major solar conference.

Have we “crossed the chasm”?

We’ve established that solar is here to stay — at least according to Intersolar participants. But has it crossed the chasm from the early adopters to the early majority?

The jury is out. But Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza assembled an impressive panel to hash out the subject. He noted that unlike early adopters, the early majority are pragmatists. They want to know that solar works, that policies are stable, and that they can get it at the lowest price.

The good news is, solar works. We may need to educate consumers, said Valenza, so they understand that any technology improvements will be incremental — and that they’ll lose money by waiting to go solar. But for the early majority, technology is not the driving force. According to Jeff Wolfe of Just Energy, these consumers buy price, brand, and desire. Danny Kennedy of CalCEF added, people also buy what their neighbors bought — so we need to make use of social proof.

Policy is another matter, with plenty of challenges for solar. That’s why Bernadette del Chiaro of CALSEIA doesn’t think we’ve crossed the chasm yet. People are now buying a reduced energy bill, she said, and control over that cost. If policies change, we lose those customers.

While a lower price is what we’re selling, it can still be a tough sell. But Kennedy believes that’s an execution issue — we haven’t reached all the pragmatists because we’re still a small, young industry. del Chiaro pointed to another issue: the dynamic of inertia. Solar requires people to opt in, and most people aren’t motivated to make the effort. But we can’t look for a magic formula, said Kennedy; we simply need to put in the work of salescraft and marketing.

Still, lower prices have led to solar being the mainstream generation of choice, noted Wolfe. Barry Cinnamon of Spice Solar agreed, pointing out that almost all new electricity generation coming online is from solar power.

How that translates from utility-scale installations to the residential sector is another matter.

The problem, Wolfe noted, is that people don’t think about energy. He’s all for selling energy and services instead of solar — something people don’t need in their homes. On the other hand, Valenza pointed out, solar has a great brand. We can use that to make people care, in a way that a bland utility that’s just selling cheaper energy can’t do.

Perhaps what we need is a synthesis of these two angles. Can we sell solar as energy, but still make the differentiation that it’s solar?

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And finally, when will solar be mainstream? The panelists offered these predictions:

  • Jeff Wolfe: When it’s sold as one of a menu of services. He expects this to happen within three to four years in some markets.
  • Danny Kennedy: Solar was mainstream in 2012 when the money switched from one side of the balance sheet to the other. The alternative energy for three years, he said, has been coal, oil, nukes, and gas.
  • Bernadette del Chiaro: When she doesn’t need a job anymore — sometime beyond 2020.
  • Barry Cinnamon: When half the people have it. In parts of the country where the economics work, he thinks this will happen by December 31, 2021, when the ITC expires.
  • Tor Valenza: When a majority of his friends have gone solar, which he thinks will be in 2025.

SBoB rocks!!

What better way to round off a couple days at Intersolar than with Solar Battle of the Bands? There’s nothing quite like the feeling of celebrating with awesome solar peeps and high-quality musical performances.

You have to experience it to get the full effect, but for now, here are a few photos. Big congrats to this year’s winner, Rev. Ray and the Everlasting Incentives, from Inovateus Solar!

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The SBoB lineup
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A packed room of solar people having a great time!
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The Fronicators — definitely contenders, and looking the part

You can see more photos of the show here.