USSMI 2014: The Storage Horizon, ITC Cliff, Solar Policy Battlegrounds

The Energy Gang live at USSMI 2014: Stephen Lacey of Greentech Media, Katherine Hamilton of 38 North Solutions, Jigar Shah of Jigar Shah Consulting, Mateo Jaramillo of Tesla, Michael Parker of CPUC

By Pamela Cargill
PV Solar Report Contributor

Last year, I wrapped up the 2013 Greentech Media U.S. Solar Market Insight conference with the themes “Solar, Storage, and Utility Collaboration” and “Focus on Operational Effectiveness.” This year, the message was related but came wrapped in a sense of urgency around the heating-up policy debates underpinning the ITC extension and the ever-complex landscape of rate design, tariffs, and value of solar conversations happening nationwide.

Here are the major themes and takeaways from the 2014 U.S. Solar Market Insight Conference.

Storage market: Like solar PV in 2006

Many panelists and audience members at the storage pre-conference agreed that the storage market feels a lot like where the solar PV market was in 2006. However, that doesn’t mean it will take another eight years for storage to ramp up to where solar is now. Both participants and analysts shared the sentiment that storage would ramp up faster than solar has. Currently, though, market conditions for storage adoption are still spotty and scattered over the U.S. and highly dependent on rate structures and tariffs.

Most storage conversation was focused on commercial-scale solutions in first-world markets across demand management, peak shaving, and frequency response areas. But one outlier in go-to-market strategy was battery manufacturer Aquion Energy. Matt Maroon, Aquion’s Senior Director of Product Management, said his company was looking at the global off-grid developing markets, a massive global opportunity, to spur micro-grids with their technology and approach.

2017 ITC “cliff:” Trouble ahead

Concern over the future of the ITC loomed large over discussions. According to data presented by Senior VP of GTM Research Shayle Kann, kicking off the conference, the end of the ITC would kill marginal markets, possibly setting the industry back to current 2014 market levels—or worse. The dissenting voice was John Berger of Sunnova who “cannot wait till ITC is gone. It’s sending false price signals” –- an assertion that sent uncomfortable murmurs around the room and the Twittersphere.

Rate design is the new solar policy battleground

Across several sessions, panelists shared concerns about how rate design changes could impact the value of solar and spur or hold back markets. Rate design is the “new solar policy” battle.

Bryan Miller, spokesperson for The Alliance for Solar Choice and Public Policy at SunRun, is a champion for net energy metering (NEM). Miller commented that 2014 policy battles were mostly about rate design. He stressed that minimum bills are not the same as a fixed charge. A minimum bill is better, especially when coupled with time-of-use (TOU) billing, because all kilowatt-hours are not the same.

Over 70% of the audience in the Crowd-sourced Insights session saw NEM and grid integration issues as top challenges to the solar market in the next decade.

Operational effectiveness: Not just growth

The soft costs discussion continued at USSMI. Hardware manufacturers, including Suniva’s Matt Card, pushed back on any more huge price decreases. Card said we don’t have “another 70% to be taken out of module costs” and that we “need to look at soft costs — we’re still two times as expensive as Germany.”

During the live Energy Gang recording, Jigar Shah expressed a frustration shared by many who are trying to place the most valuable solar resource on the grid. While utilities have asked for real-time operating data from solar PV operators, utilities are still not implementing the data into grid operation. He ended with the exclamation underscoring the heart of the matter, “We couldn’t integrate [the data] anyway because your systems upstream are programmed in COBOL!” Disconnects like these will continue to hamper effective next-generation utility and solar industry collaboration.

Mike Mishovsky of Qbotix came out of the gate swinging hard as an advocate for operational effectiveness, collaboration, and transparency to continue to innovate solutions. Those include paying installers by panel and not by the hour to incentivize quality and expediency, much as is done in Australia, according to RMI’s study of the market. He asked conference attendees to “look for downstream impacts of what you’re doing” and advocated for looking outside the industry for best practices like industrial automation techniques.

Bill Poulin of the global EPC Lend Lease highlighted his background in Lean Thinking for the crowd as a way to drive costs down and quality up. “There are too many non-value-added activities,” he said. Poulin advocated for value stream mapping as a way to mitigate waste like moving equipment more than once, as exemplified by the waste of Motion from 7 Forms of Waste.

Opportunity abounds

Overall, the conference tone was positive, with many panelists and attendees highlighting obstacles as opportunities — even the “ITC cliff.” Installers now need to make the most of the growth in the market and shifting landscape to continue to create success going into the future.

Pamela Cargill PortraitPamela Cargill, Principal of Chaolysti, specializes in process improvement and operational effectiveness in the residential solar sector. She has developed new programs and rapidly scaled some of the largest national brands in residential solar on the East Coast (Alteris Renewables- now RGS Energy) and West Coast (Sungevity). Her decade of experience spans the entirety of residential solar operations strategy, from marketing to sales streamlining, design to installation, project management to customer experience.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of PV Solar Report.