Smart Energy Week Recap: Notes From the Show Floor

By: Emma Foehringer Merchant and Julian Spector, Green Tech Media

Read full article on Green Tech Media’s wesbite here.

The U.S. solar industry united around blossoming storage technologies and the push for an ITC extension in Utah.

Solar Power International will always feel most relevant when the industry is coordinating around a discrete objective.

This year the Solar Energy Industries Association delivered a disciplined message: “DEFEND the ITC.” That short-term defensive effort, if successful, will accelerate the longer-term offensive goal of delivering 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030 — which requires taking market share from the incumbents.

Those are fighting words, and SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper made that explicit in her opening remarks.

“It is going to be a war, and not a battle, for leadership of that U.S. energy market,” Ross Hopper said. “We have to expand our list of allies and fend off well-funded challenges from fuel sources moving toward obsolescence.”

The martial posture drew strength from this year’s head-spinning transformation of climate politics. The climate issue has gone from political afterthought to a galvanizing force in American politics, with activists organizing for a Green New Deal, Democratic primary candidates jockeying for the most ambitious clean energy plan, and a half-dozen states targeting decarbonization.

Activists took to the streets in cities around the world last week to demand action on climate change and environmental justice. The solar industry made clear this week that it stands to deliver on those demands — promising climate wins as well as a commitment to diversity and inclusion within its ranks.

Here are some highlights from conversations GTM had this week in Utah.

Home batteries bursting out all over

For years, those few homeowners looking to install a battery had only a few choices: Tesla Powerwall, LG Chem Resu and sonnen Eco, plus a few others chipping away at the margins.

But residential energy storage is growing more diverse after the market’s biggest-ever quarter. And this year’s SPI included a flurry of new entrants.

Panasonic launched its first entirely branded home battery product, called the EverVolt. That was not its first foray into the market. The multitalented manufacturer already produces solar panels and battery cells — those famous Tesla batteries are really Panasonic batteries surrounded by Tesla tech. It previously partnered with Pika Energy to produce a battery/inverter combo.

But Pika got acquired by gen-set giant Generac, which means it can buy in bulk from Panasonic’s manufacturing arm. The North American Life Solutions division wanted its own branded product to sell through its existing network of 180 authorized solar installers and beyond.

“It’s still sort of the wild, wild west,” said Erik Anderson, Panasonic’s East Coast sales manager for solar and storage, describing the home storage market. The company is targeting an installed cost comparable to the LG Chem battery/SolarEdge inverter combo popularized by solar installer Sunrun.

Meanwhile, home battery vendor Electriq announced a strategic shift to sell its storage system as a white-labeled product for other brands. “It’s a way to get serious volume pretty quick,” once the extensive validation process with the customer wraps up, said EVP Aric Saunders.

Electriq announced at SPI that it will supply a volume order to “one of the world’s largest providers of solar products” and build out a network operations center to manage the deployed systems.

Residential solar providers including SunPower, Sunrun and Sunnova are all selling batteries paired with their residential systems now, an indication of the widening scope of the industry.

You’ve got potential, bifacial

“Bifacial Enables Potential” proclaimed signage at this year’s Jolywood booth. Many solar companies appear in agreement, with double-sided panel displays gobbling up more floor space than in years past.

Though bifacial modules first made their entrance in 1960, the technology is only now breaking into the mainstream. In the U.S. it’s been helped along by a recently granted exclusion to Section 201 tariffs.

However, burned more than once, the solar industry acknowledges the fickle trade policy of the Trump administration means the tariffs could change. A midterm review of the Section 201 tariffs, which step down over four years, is now underway.

“I was actually surprised to even hear [about the bifacial exclusion] to be honest with you, because you know, the momentum was going the other direction it seems to me, with tariffs,” said Jim Day, director of sales and marketing at Trina Solar on the show floor. “We’d like to make sure it’s going to be sustainable, because everybody’s making their plans right now based on a certain price point without a tariff. […] There’s uncertainty in the marketplace.”

On the Friday before SPI, Roth Capital Partners analyst Philip Shen published a note suggesting “the exclusion could be removed or more likely adjusted,” without providing much more detail.

Jim Day at Trina acknowledged that an “internal debate” is currently underway within SEIA, because the industry remains divided over the exclusion, which benefits those that manufacture bifacial panels outside of the U.S. “It’s really the classic fight between people that have a vested interest in having a tariff and those that don’t.”

SEIA told GTM in June that it had been pushing for a bifacial exclusion. After SPI the trade organization said it continues to “strongly support” the exemption, and protecting the exclusion is a priority for SEIA in the midterm review process.

Global bifacial capacity now tops 8.8 gigawatts, most of it in China, according to new Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables research. The U.S. claims a mere 547 megawatts of installed capacity. But in the next five years, WoodMac analyst Xiaojing Sun forecasts bifacial capacity will triple its share of annual global solar installations, to 17 percent.

“DEFEND”

The federal Investment Tax Credit commanded a lot of airtime at SPI, as expected. But while SEIA is committed to an extension, the atmosphere on the floor was a bit more mixed.

Few solar entrepreneurs would turn down the incentive, but under the banner of unity lay whispers about letting the industry stand on its own.

Still, many offered unvarnished support: “I say, ‘Hell yeah,’” said Tom Leyden, senior director at EDF Renewables Distributed Solutions, on the potential for an extension.

To buttress the argument for an extension, SEIA dropped research in partnership with WoodMac this week indicating an extension of the 30 percent credit through 2030 would substantially boost the market, particularly for utility-scale projects.

Bill savings without the hardware

Selling solar energy to businesses is not easy, and the commercial battery market is even tougher, as the segment’s quarter-to-quarter ups and downs attest. New startup Extensible Energy builds energy management software to moderate customers’ demand charges without requiring them to purchase an expensive battery.

The service forecasts solar production in parallel with the building’s forthcoming electricity needs, and crunches the numbers every minute to create an optimal operations plan. In practice, this means toggling HVAC operations to soak up abundant solar and avoid cycling when clouds block the sun.

The company is deploying a project with its fifth paying customer this month, and serves clients like car dealerships and churches, for which HVAC load drives a considerable portion of demand charges. Extensible can’t match the dispatchability of a battery, but it avoids the upfront expense.

Pricing depends on the size of the building, but falls in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 for the first five years, said founder John Powers.

Extensible won’t be cold-calling commercial energy managers on its own; the company reaches customers through commercial solar installers, as an add-on to the overall solar deal, which just happens to be ITC-eligible.

The approach calls to mind the recent pivot by Axiom Exergy, which started out selling thermal batteries to help grocery stores avoid demand charges and keep food cold through an outage. That startup now offers its thermal management software on a standalone basis, saying it can achieve considerable savings just by operating existing cooling systems more intelligently, without the trouble of installing hardware in a commercial property.

The solar industry is growing up, Powers said, and that means evolving from selling panels to providing solutions.

Blue Planet upsizes battery product

Blue Planet Energy was one of those companies that could have easily vanished from the scene. Founded by Tetris developer Henk Rogers in an effort to take his Hawaiian ranch off the grid, the startup unveiled its home battery in a swanky Palo Alto hotel in 2016.

But the Hawaii-based company managed to avoid the flash-in-the-pan failure of bigger and better-funded competitors, grew to 30 employees and iterated its design for durable off-grid or weak-grid resilience. Its battery systems now operate in 25 states.

The company is almost done installing solar and battery systems for shelters in Puerto Rico; the Red Cross funded 125 such shelters this year, to maintain electricity in kitchen and shelter areas when the hurricane battered grid goes out. Blue Planet’s contribution adds up to 6 megawatts solar and 10 megawatt-hours of storage, said COO Chris Johnson.

Blue Planet’s product was geared for larger home backup needs than the relatively small Tesla/LG Chem/sonnen batteries serve, and that attracted attention from businesses. “Over half our customers were commercial, even with this thing that we thought was a residential battery,” Johnson said.

At SPI the company unveiled a new commercial product that is higher-voltage, with 125-kilowatt building blocks that can scale to however many hours of energy duration the customer wants to pay for. The lower-voltage residential model has been adapted to fit in the same enclosure, in order to streamline manufacturing.

And for customers concerned about battery safety after fires at lithium-ion facilities in South Korea and Arizona, Blue Planet uses lithium-ferrous-phosphate cells from Murata, which are chemically less prone to thermal runaway than popular nickel-manganese-cobalt chemistries.

Murata’s batteries passed fire safety testing at the cell level, Johnson said.