Last month I talked about my adventures on the East Coast at the Solar Decathlon in Washington. This month let’s venture out to Southern California for the Solar Power International Conference, put on by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Still on East Coast time, rising before the sunrise was a daily event and each morning’s sunrise was spectacular. By the time we saw the sun’s first golden rays peeking over the mountains to the east of Anaheim, enough energy had fallen on the surface of the U.S. to provide all the daily power needs for several years! In fact, the amount of solar energy striking the earth’s surface over three day’s time is equal to all the energy stored in all fossil fuel reserves. It was time to absorb some solar energy information at Solar Power International.

SPI is the single largest business-to-business solar showcase and featured more than 930 exhibitors of PV, thermal, commercial concentrating solar, heating/cooling applications and a variety of pool heating styles. In spite of the huge trade show floor space, the more than 24,000 registered attendees resulted in crowded aisles abuzz with conversations. The number of speakers (more than 200) created a need to carefully manage time and drill down through the topics of most interest for the overlapping presentations. Even then, it was impossible to take in as many as I wanted, but not to fear — registered attendees are given online access to all of them shortly after the event.

Call it a comfort issue, but we wanted to visit with the thermal solar folks first to see old friends and gauge the growth, or lack thereof, in the number of booths showcasing solar hot water technologies. While the size of SPI had doubled from last year’s show in San Diego, the number of solar hot water booths had mushroomed! Still, it was a relief to run into old friends — both inside booths and as visitors, like Dave Woycio, president of Metro Solar Inc., from Denver, who remains active on SEIA boards and works diligently to help shape the future of solar on a regional and national level.

A vested interest in PV

My home state of Pennsylvania passed an alternative energy bill last year with incentives of up to $2.25 per installed Watt of PV. In order to obtain the incentive, the end-user must use an approved installer from the list on the PA-DEP Web site, and you can’t get listed without proof of approved training. I was shocked to find that all PV certification classes (on DEP’s approved trainer list) were sold out well into 2010. With several PV systems in our pipeline, that was a dilemma. One, and only one, SunPirate.com, had an opening, and classes had already begun — I was late for class before getting started!

Training is an ongoing issue the solar industry must ramp up in order to keep up with demand. During my time interviewing Rhone Resch, CEO and president of SEIA, we spoke about training and the explosive growth solar has experienced this past year. Photovoltaics alone saw an 82% increase in 2009. Training, as I’d discovered, was lagging far behind demand and, given the many cross-trade safety issues PV installers face, the industry needs to have installer-certification courses that don’t create unnecessary barriers to successfully graduating. Memorization of complicated formulas for closed-book exams, as an example, create an unrealistic barrier for the roughly 40% of tradesfolk (like me) who have dyslexia. A more practical approach is an open-book test that tests students’ memories regarding where to go for design or installation answers.

PV panels everywhere! It seemed like there were enough PV panels on display to power a nation.

“It’s been a dynamic year with a fundamental shift in pricing that’s likely to shake out a few of the weaker players,” said Gaelan Brun with http://www.grosolar.com/. “Several manufacturers locked-in material prices anticipating a run-up in costs, only to witness the sales-side dip by more than 30%. This is definitely a buyers’ market for PV solar systems.”

An unexpected and pleasant chance encounter with East Coast to West Coast transplant Andrew Barton, now CEO of http://www.ussolardistributing.com/, led to further discussions about training.

“We have ramped up training and are striving to meet demand,” Barton told me. Andrew was, at one time, our salesperson for T. Somerville and knows my feelings about wholesalers and manufacturers who undercut contractors’ business by selling direct — often at wholesale cost.

“One thing I know you’ll appreciate: we sell only to installing contractors and that’s been our policy for more than 30 years,” he said. Training plus contractor loyalty? “And, we’ll gladly ship product to the East Coast.” Well, sign me up.

Installer accountability

All this great solar stuff and who is to say it was installed properly or will live up to the end users’ expectations? A few states have monitoring requirements tied directly to the solar system’s performance. If you sell a consumer a 4 kW PV system or promise the solar thermal system will deliver X gallons of hot water each year, there are monitoring systems available to provide proof you did what you said you’d do; if you overpromised and under-delivered, you’re the one headed for hot water! Fat Spaniel and Sunny Beam wireless seemed to represent the spectrum from independent monitoring agency to manufacturer-based on-site consumer monitoring.

As the industry evolves, let’s hope incentives and tax credits require system monitoring to validate our work. We’re on the verge of a Wild West solar gold rush that will eclipse the ‘70s and ‘80s solar surge. Without training, licensing, and verification of performance, the industry and consumers risk an influx of underperforming Rube Goldberg solar installations that will give us all a black eye.

New this year is the influx of PV panels with mini-inverters attached to each panel. Many are touting a simplified installation with tightly spaced panels for a much more aesthetically pleasing appearance. They are better looking, but beware those that incorporate panel-to-panel inter-connecting parts — like grounding rods — that would create a nightmare for a single-panel replacement or service unless it happens to be the end-panel.

“You can walk on the panels, but we recommend you walk on the panel’s frame instead of the center of the glass,” I was told!

Nonetheless, the emphasis this year is on making solar systems with a streamlined appeal sure to please discriminating consumers who have been reluctant to see too much of the underlying framework with wide gaps between panels. In addition, manufacturers of rack systems are simplifying the installation to help reduce the time required for assembly. Less time equals lower cost and that leads to increased sales. Work smarter, not harder! Personally, given that falls from roofs are a leading cause of injuries and deaths (one death per day on average in the U.S. and Canada), I’m happy they’re working hard to get us off the roof faster with improved odds for a safe return.

Thin film solar growth continues to eat into traditional solar panel technology and is anticipated to comprise as much as 31% of the market by 2013 from its 14% market share in 2008. The single largest limiting factor has been, and will continue to be, the additional 15% to 40% of solar real estate needed to match traditional panel outputs. However, thin film’s sleek thin look combined with its deep blue-black hue sure does captivate the eyes of passersby and met with lots of onlookers’ compliments.

One of my SunPirate PV classmates, Paul Holden, lives in California and was planning on attending SPI mid-week, during the open-to-the-public event. I wanted to meet Paul and get his perspective on the show. Paul was one of more than 3,000 visitors storming the exhibition hall Wednesday evening. À la Gilligan’s Island, Paul referred to this as the “Three Hour Tour!”

What was Paul’s first impression of SPI? Approaching the Anaheim Convention Center around 4:45 p.m. Wednesday in anticipation of the free public entry from 5:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m., street signs guide you to an overflow lot about half a mile’s walk from the convention center. This is your first indication that the show is pretty popular. The SPI Web site says they sold out all 925 exhibitor spots, and last year the conference had 425.

In a small re-creation of Ellis Island, we of the “great free public” are shown to our lineup area to wait for 5:30 p.m. This is so we can pass through some counting turnstiles into the exhibit and the promoters can get a headcount. We don’t register and we don’t need no stinking badges.

Once inside, I felt as much as a middle-aged man can feel like a new kid at high school. All the vendors seem to know each other and their regular contractors, and there’s all the cool stuff we’ve been seeing in our online SunPirate training course — but more of it and in infinite variety. There was such an “up” feeling among the vendors that Paul said it reminded him of his first Wescon trade shows as an electronic engineer in the late ‘70s, when it felt like the industry had a future “so bright you had to wear shades.” It was intimidating for someone halfway through his first online PV solar course.

What will you take away regarding solar PV displays? Crystal silicon PV Panels were a commodity shown by big and small companies, so many that you got tired of seeing them after a while. Seems like every country (U.S., China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Portugal, lots of other European names) has manufacturers and distributors. They are mostly the same shape and capacity, some blue (with and without diamond patterns or lines), some black. One thing they all seemed to have in common — every vendor’s was the most efficient!

How do you decide?

How you pick a winner out of all these will be a challenge — it makes you consider sticking with a package distributor, like SunWize. Their main business is still to deliver a system package to contractors with a shrink-wrapped set of documents that cover everything you need from pulling the permit to the required customer wiring diagrams and docs. They now have an installation division too, so they’re putting systems on roofs themselves and they’re hiring.

What did you learn about solar panels? They are tough. They are supposed to be able to take a hit from hailstones as big as golf balls at whatever speed it is you reach falling from a cloud. Several people told me they had walked across arrays for service or whatever, but being careful to keep their weight on the frames if possible. I had seen so many pictures of arrays with no access spaces between rows, I was wondering how technicians got in to pull a bad panel.

As someone new to solar, I asked Paul if he noticed any differences in the racking systems? Using array racking and installation to differentiate PV panels was a big deal. Since the panels are functionally pretty similar, there are many companies trying to out-clever each other with no-rack installations and simplified interconnection. Putting slots in the panel frame extrusions to accept mechanical brackets means that no separate “rack” hardware is needed, only brackets for legs. The Akeena company has a product called Andalay (to remind you, perhaps, of Speedy Gonzales saying “ándale!”) that not only mechanically connects panel to panel, but has in and out connectors on each side that fit together to make a voltage bus from end to end automatically. You end up with no spaces between panels and they claim it goes together really fast with far fewer parts. I hope they’re using a darn good connector, since the weakest link in many harsh environment electronic products I designed was … the connectors.

It seemed, to me as well, that the advent of mini-inverters has the potential to impact the solar industry. I asked Paul, as someone with a background in electrical engineering, what’s his take on this practice? Mini AC inverters are available to stick on the backs of each PV panel to give you an array with a 240V AC output that goes into an electronic black box that can combine multiple AC lines for connection to a regular AC line power panel. The guy telling us about this said that most PV arrays have a 600V DC bus coming off the roof, so 240VAC was actually less dangerous. Paul was once shocked nearly unconscious by 120 VAC, and he didn’t really think he’d like to try either choice. Whatever the advantage to this is, it puts a lot of separate electronic modules (with microprocessors I would bet) in a pretty harsh environment — right on the back of something pretty hot. While there are industrial grade parts to serve such applications, it seems to violate KISS engineering, so the benefits must be pretty good.

More “putting stuff on the backs of panels” comes from National Semiconductor with their Solar Magic product. Our training course hasn’t mentioned this so far, but apparently mismatches between panel outputs in an array can degrade the overall power by 10%-40%, according to a National Semiconductor video. The variation can be from different types of manufacturers panels, panels facing different directions on the roof, different amounts of dirt or shading. Sticking one of their modules on the back of each panel cures all ills. My guess, and it is strictly guessing, is that it’s a DC-DC converter with power tracking regulation (like some of the power maximizing charge controllers we learned about) and it matches all panel output voltages to some standard value.

When I asked Paul if there was anything missing that he expected to see at SPI, he noted he didn’t see much panel tracking hardware or roof mount angle brackets — only one example of each. Perhaps there were others, but the only tracking system was very large — utility sized. Apparently having the array flat a few inches off the roof is the residential favorite for aesthetics and simplicity. We learned in the first few chapters of our training class how simply matching the angle to latitude had a significant effect on power output. Perhaps, though, it’s just faster, easier, and better looking to add more panels to make up for the inefficiency. In an isolated area or with a ground mount, I imagine you can get racks to mount any angle you want.

So what about the issue of local codes and permitting issues? One thing I wanted to find out at the show was how much opposition different cities and homeowners groups had to adding big black or blue arrays on rooftops in expensive neighborhoods. The consensus from the few installers I talked to is that there are few problems getting the permits — although permit fees are all over the place. In Paul’s city, it’s $2,000 to do solar based on cost, since it’s treated like any home improvement.

Other nearby cities have low or no fees for solar as an incentive. Apropos of this, I met the inimitable Bradley Bartz from ABC Solar at the Shuco booth. A solar designer for many years, he’s kind of like the Penn Gillette (Penn and Teller) of solar. Wearing a T-shirt with “The Squeaky Wheel” in very large print, he has fought some cities in court on behalf of all solar installers, and probably secretly enjoyed it. To learn more about Bartz, click here.

Most of the daily attendees had long since departed the convention center and it was time for us to move on, so that Paul could get the most out of his visit.

All work and no play? No way! SPI knows how to throw a party and this year’s was held at the neighboring Disneyland Park, which was closed to the public during the after-hours event. Imagine this scene: a networking and social event of epic proportions where food, drink and rides without lines are available and toss in a Disney-style fireworks display to punctuate the evening’s gala event.

SPI will be held in next year in Los Angeles, Oct. 12-14. Four and a half billion years without a single power outage; solar panel prices slashed by more than 30% over the past year; incentives and tax credits are up; consumer interest is at an all-time high; solar is the single-largest and best growth-industry in the down-economy.

Isn’t it time to consider becoming a participant in the bright solar future, casting its ever-widening glow across the globe? A great place to begin is by joining SEIA to help support those who are supporting us.

As Rhone Resch told me, “Think of SEIA as the doorway to the solar industry for resources, education, legislation, and training opportunities.”

Dave Yates owns F.W. Behler, a contracting company in York, Pa. He can be reached by phone at 717/843-4920 or by e-mail at Dave.Yates@fwbehler.com.