If you needed any further evidence that the solar industry has reached a new level of maturity, you could find it in spades at this year's Intersolar North America.
Officials from states eager to attract solar projects (notably, Arizona and New Mexico) were there touting new incentive packages. Chinese and German manufacturers showed up in larger numbers, many of them announcing new American headquarters. Start-ups came to showcase commercial versions of technologies developed in university labs.
Every trend in the global solar industry was crammed into three convention center floors in downtown San Francisco. But while solar trade shows in previous years have been the domain of start-ups and new technology, Intersolar 2009 featured a subtle shift.
There were start-ups and innovators, yes, but the biggest news involved giant industry leaders making deals, and there were many more foreign companies getting serious about their presence in the states.
Here are a few of the companies we spotted as emblematic of broader trends in the industry:
The University Spin-off
The story of 1366 Technologies is increasingly the story of cleantech in America: University professor develops breakthrough technology, venture capitalist sees potential commercial value in that technology, start-up spins off of research, team toils away to deliver on the commercial promise of their research. And there is perhaps no university that has spawned more cleantech start-ups, particularly recently, than MIT.
The company boasts several technological breakthroughs in the manufacture of silicon-based solar cells that it claims improve the efficiency of solar panels. It's a claim that's easy to believe, given that
1366 Technologies co-founder and MIT professor Emanuel Sachs invented the Light-Capturing Ribbon technology that has already increased the efficiency and reduced the cost of solar.
The company's latest technology to market—a new cell architecture and manufacturing process that increases the surface area of the cell, boosting the efficiency of panels—has yet to be tested in the real world. Yesterday at Intersolar, however, Craig Lund, director of business development for the company, announced an order from an unnamed German solar developer for a prototype machine.
The technology was also developed by Sachs, but we'll have to wait and see if it is as successful as his first breakthrough. 1366 is currently working on two other technologies that it is keeping quiet for now.
The Software Company
Just as modeling software has made designing a green building easier than ever, software companies moving into the renewable energy space hope to help project developers maximize their use of natural resources.
Swiss company Vela Solaris, founded in 2007 as a spin-off of the Institute for Solar Technology SPF at the University of Applied Science Rapperswil in Switzerland, just launched its Polysun software package in the U.S. two months ago. Intersolar was its big debut to the American solar industry, and it took the opportunity to announce an upgrade to its software that includes the latest data from the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC) for all U.S. solar system components.
As an indication of where the industry is heading, the company's software focuses not only on photovoltaics but also on solar thermal and geothermal design.
The German Giant
The German solar industry was at Intersolar North America in full force, and not just because the show is a spin-off of the long-running Intersolar in Munich.
The extension of the U.S. solar investment tax credit lured more European solar companies to America, only to be disappointed by the subsequent financial meltdown, but this year's stimulus package combined with the promise of climate legislation have made the U.S. market highly desirable, despite the fact that the legislation remains riddled with question marks.
But lest we forget that the German solar industry is the founding father of solar, Siemens' appearance at Intersolar coincided with its announcement on Monday of the formal founding of Desertec, a massive and ambitious concentrating solar power (CSP) project planned for North Africa.
Along with Schott Solar, ABB, Abengoa Solar, Cevital, Deutsche Bank, E.ON, HSH Nordbank, Solar Millennium, Munich RE, M+W Zander, and RWE, Siemens plans to build CSP plants throughout the region and transmit it to Europe via underwater cables.
The Chinese Leader
It's not exactly breaking news that the Chinese solar industry is huge now and that there is increasing interest from Chinese companies in the U.S. solar market. It is interesting, however, to see just how quickly the big Chinese companies are moving to get into the market.
Chinese solar panel giant Yingli Solar announced on Wednesday that it will be opening regional headquarters in New York and San Francisco. The offices will anchor its new wholly owned subsidiary Yingli Green Energy Americas Inc., the launch of which indicates the company's intention to enter into the North American market in a big way.
The news comes less than a month after Yingli's initial public offering generated $192.6 million (for 18.6 million shares).
The Residential Solar Start-Up
Reminiscent of the very early days of the solar industry, tiny start-up Armageddon Energy has only two employees. And yet, the little company has become the mascot of a new movement afoot in solar: DIY residential solar. Not that we are anywhere near cheap, easy-to-install rooftop solar systems at your local Home Depot.
Speaking at a panel at Intersolar, CEO Mark Goldman said his company intends to focus on making rooftop solar as cheap and easy to install as possible, describing solar as not necessarily the goal in and of itself, but a "gateway drug" to energy efficiency.