Intersolar 2009: A Preview

Thesolar conference is offering more programs and in-depth discussions ofall things solar at a time when solar panel prices are falling andsolar thermal power is gaining more utility customers.

For the next four days, many of the 15,000 expected attendees at Intersolar North Americaare likely to get a heavy dose of discussions on government policies,new technologies and solar beginner guides for jobseekers.

This is the second of two annual conferences in San Francisco thatis taking place under dramatically different economic and politicalcircumstances than what took place a year ago.

The credit crunch has crippled project developers’ ability to lineup financing. The costs of raw materials and components for solarpanels have fallen quickly. Solar thermal power developers are winningutility customers and signing mega power sales agreements that wouldrequire them to build hundreds of megawatts, if not gigawatts, of solarfarms in California and the southwestern states.

And, of course, there’s the new administration’s promise to pumpfinancial aid into the renewable energy industry, with the hopes ofcreating jobs and doing some good for the environment at the same time.

The recession and the accompanying credit crunch have made financingelusive for project developers and installers. Solar companies haveturned to the U.S. government for help, but are impatient with whatthey see as a slow pace with which the government is giving out thepromised aid.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February thisyear, included funding for a loan guarantee and a grant program thataims to make loans and cash more accessible to project developers. Butthe government needs time to write the program rules and set up theprocess for accepting and reviewing applications.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Treasury issued guidelines for thegrant program, but it wasn’t ready to start accepting applications.That is likely to take place around Aug. 1 (see Feds Almost Ready to Issue Renewable Energy Grants). The U.S. Department of Energy has yet to release guidelines for the loan guarantee program.

Discussions about federal and state policies and how companies cantake advantage of new government programs will help kickoff theconference on Monday. Greentech Media and the PV Group both are hostingsessions on this topic. Executives from Applied Materials, RecurrentEnergy, SunPower, the California Solar Energy Industries Associationand the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are among the expectedspeakers.

Unlike last year’s Intersolar, this year’s program features multipleconcurrent tracks, many of which will look at the challenges andemerging technologies in crystalline silicon and thin-film solarpanels, as well as in the solar thermal power field.

Over the past year, utilities in California and southwestern statessuch as Arizona and Nevada have signed several mega contracts forgigawatts of solar power from solar thermal power developers (see Solar Millennium Lands 726W Contract with SoCal Edison, BrightSource, PG&E Sign 1.31GW Deal in California and Lockheed Martin, Starwood to Build 290MW Solar Thermal Plant in Arizona).

Utilities are always on the hunt for cheaper solar power, whose costis still largely not on par with fossil fuel-generated electricity.Solar thermal power developers say their technologies could do justthat, compared with power plants built with solar panels. Solar thermalpower developers also can offer energy storage, an attractive featurefor utilities that deal with peak hours in the evening, such as in thecase in Arizona.

Officials from Solar Millennium, eSolar and the Fraunhofer Institutefor Solar Energy Systems are among those scheduled to speak about solarthermal power on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the rapid price declines of raw materials and componentsfor solar panels are making them more competitive against solar thermaltechnologies, as far as the utility market goes.

Only earlier this month, silicon producer LDK Solar saidit was increasing its second-quarter shipment forecast to 220 megawattsto 230 megawatts from its previous forecast of 200 megawatts to 220megawatts. But its projected sales fell short of Wall Street’s expectation.

By some estimates, the selling prices for crystalline silicon solarpanels have fallen 30 percent the last 10 months, to roughly $2 to$2.50 per watt. First Solar’s cadmium-telluride panels are sold atunder $2 per watt, analysts said. Solar panels generally make up halfof the installation costs.

Large commercial and utility-scale project developers are likely toreap more benefits from the price declines because they would be buyingand installing panels in bulk.

The prices for installing solar at homes also have fallen, though not as dramatic as some would imagine (see When Is the Right Time to Buy Solar?).

Jeff Wolfe, CEO of groSolar, aninstaller in 11 states including California, Massachusetts and NewYork, noted in a recent interview that prices for solar energy systemsoverall have come decreased about 15 percent to 20 percent in the lastsix months.

But he noted that labor and advertising costs haven’t fallen andtake up sizable chunks of his budget. Wolfe is scheduled to talk aboutthe residential market at Greentech Media’s program on Monday.

The solar energy industry remains a fledgling one, and is attractinga lot of newcomers. Government policies and money that have been put inplace in the past seven months are likely to lure even more peoplelooking for green jobs.

For those who want to enter the solar business, the conference willoffer tracks to go over the basics of photovoltaic and solar thermalpower manufacturing and installation.



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