Thursday, October 19, 2006

Solar Power 2006 Wrap-Up

Solar Power 2006 came to an end today. I was on the show floor yesterday, mostly just walking around, checking things out, and asking questions.

The scene was very buttoned-down and corporate, with a distinct silicon-valley tech feel. In years past such a conference would always feature the big players, but you could count on a reasonable contingent of of wacky visionaries touting their wild, and woefully underfunded, concepts. There was very little of that this year, as it seems many of the wacky visionaries have hooked up with venture capital - and there seemed to be quite a few VC reps working the floor, as well.

In fact, if anything the show felt a lot like the dot-com days come again; a bit long on cash and short on sense.

There were a lot of really nice booths. Sharp's was two stories, with a live installation demonstration, MC'd by a perky young woman in a very short skirt. Q-Cells and Suntech -- two cell manufacturers who recently made splashy IPOs, one out of Germany and one out of China -- each set up sizable "lounges" filled with uncomfortable post-modern furniture. Evergreen, a US based cell manufacturer with a unique manufacturing technique, set up one of their string ribbon pullers (not operational). Satcon brought in their 500 kW inverter -- a beast of a unit, about half the size of a bus, as if to erase any doubt that solar power can be utility-scale.

The point of all this is just to say that this show really brought home that the solar industry is just that - an industry - and also a sometimes messy but always fascinating mash-up of widely divergent disciplines and people. For me, the really cool thing about the PV industry is that it there are so many odd, and fertile, intersections.

First of all, there is the matter of scale. At one end, there was a company promoting it's line of 15W - 35W portable power packs, slick little aluminum boxes with cells encapsulated on top and white LEDS in a line along the side, equipped with a DC output and built in batteries. On the other end, you've got stuff like that Satcon inverter; that's 4 orders of magnitude right there. Then you've got PowerLight putting in powerplants that require 22 of those inverters.

Also, there's the sheer variety of personalities and expertise rubbing elbows. I ran into PhDs working on nanotechnology semiconductors, contractors looking at roof racks, VC lawyers, German polymer scientists, new home builders, utility reps, policymakers, and vendors promoting not just what you might immediately expect but also everything from industrial robots to monitoring software to custom module fabrication in Shanghai (promising 1 week turn-around - unless it's a government holiday).

There were a few interesting new products that stood out, although I hesitate to call them products because they were really just prototypes.

On the cell side, XsunX was showing off their roll-to-roll amorphous silicon cells, produced at lab scale. Transparent cells, deposited on plastic film. Very cool but clearly not ready for prime time. Konarka had a booth but wasn't making a big splash. If Nanosolar had a presence, it was well hidden; for all the buzz they've generated they are still staying out of the limelight, continuing to raise gobs of venture capital for a product that does not appear to yet have manifested on the earthly plane.

What with the silicon shortage, concentrators were all over the place. The most interesting one came from a company with a most uninteresting name, Practical Instruments (don't worry, you can still call your solar company Sensible Tools). Anyhow, their module-integrated tracker was pretty neat. I think Energy Innovation's rooftop tracker is interesting too, however, they didn't bring it to the show. I'm not entirely convinced that these concepts which require little plastic gears to turn for 20+ years on a roof are really going to pan out. Roofs are hot, wet, dirty places full of nasty surprises and my feeling is that before long these little integrated trackers are going to get something stuck in 'em. There was also a company pitching this massive mirror-trough system that they claimed could go on a roof, and provide both electricity and process heat with 1500X concentration. I forget what they were called but it's bold, I'll give them that.

BIPV for new homes was low key. Sharp, Kyocera, and Open Energy had products on display, but not prominently. PowerLight didn't have any products on display, focusing instead on presenting videos and photos. GE Energy had one booth space at the show - other big players had at least 3 spaces - and I didn't even notice them (so much for "Ecomagination"). On that note, if “Beyond Petroleum” had a presence, I didn’t see it.

For the most part, however, I was actually a bit surprised at how little was new, given the amount of attention (and IPOs) in the PV world this last year. There's been incremental improvement but not a lot of breakthrough technology. It seems to me that there's a lot of room for improvement with regards to module construction and mounting hardware. All of the big buzz, supposedly crystalline-killing technologies printed onto plastic are barely out of the lab; and the innovative concentrating concepts seem to be poised to break into the market just in time for the polysilicon supply crunch to let up as manufacturing capacity comes on-line.

On that note, SunPower continues to rock. They had a very busy booth and unveiled a quite spectacular 315 W module, larger but not by much than competitor's modules in the 210W range. They seem to still have improvements up their sleeves, and have continue to demonstrate that high-efficiency moncrystalline cell technology is not going to be an easy benchmark to surpass as far as value and reliability.

So, to wrap up, it was quite an interesting show. While there were no blockbuster technologies, it was simply fascinating to circulate through the show, meet with old collegues, overhear conversations, check out ideas and see aspects of the industry that I'm not normally exposed to.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

A great walk-thru and roundup. Thanks.

Raptor235 said...

I love solar power I think over the next few years it’s going to be exploding even more… as performance of solar panels goes up people are going to be adopting it everywhere they can… after all it’s free energy :) BTW here is more great solar power information I came by Solar Power

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