10 Things To Watch for At the Solar Power Conference

The Solar Power International Conference, which is the largest solar industry-focused event in the U.S., kicks off on Tuesday in Anaheim, Calif, and comes at an interesting time for the solar industry. The U.S. solar biz is in the midst of a yearlong shakeout, significant government spending from the U.S. stimulus package, and growing influence from the solar industry in China. Here’s 10 things to watch out for at the Solar Power International 2009 show:

1). Green Jobs: Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis plans to speak at the event on Tuesday morning and will undoubtedly drop the g-bomb — green jobs. The stimulus package opened up clean power grants covering up to 30 percent of the cost of projects started in the next two years, as well as a loan guarantee program that has already funded at least one solar startup (Solyndra) and investment credits for clean energy manufacturing projects. All these funding mechanisms are supposed to keep the green jobs flowing out of the solar sector. Keep an eye on ways to tap into these funds and boost solar’s potential for job creation.

2). China Not Such a Sleeping Solar Giant: China has been the world’s largest solar-panel producer for the last two years, and looks to be expanding from being mainly a solar panel supplier to also becoming a substantial customer and developer. The Chinese government earlier this year announced a deal to build a massive (world’s largest) solar PV park in Mongolia with supplier First Solar (s FSLR). Last week utility Duke Energy said it has agreed to build commercial solar power projects in the U.S. with ENN Group, a Chinese company. Already at the conference this year chip company and solar equipment maker Applied Materials (s AMAT) has announced “the largest non-government solar energy research facility in the world” in Xi’an, China.

3). Thin Film CIGS Progress: Companies developing the next-generation of thin film solar materials made from copper cadmium indium gallium selenide (CIGS) have had a long and bumpy road. Will this conference be the event where companies finally show some proof of commercial production breakthroughs? Last month thin film startup Nanosolar announced that it had moved into high-volume production and at the show this year already announced that it has developed a partnership with mounting system maker SunLink. (I’m hoping to see the mounted panel at the show). CIGS panel maker SoloPower will be showing off its a prototype of its product at the 3M booth.

4). How to Survive a Solar Shakeout: The event features a panel on this subject and the buzz throughout the conference will be about how companies have handled the recession and a solar power price drop due to the fact that the supply of solar modules overtook demand this year. One way to survive the difficult environment is consolidation, and two solar firms companies announced acquisitions last week. SunEdison, which was bought by silicon wafer maker MEMC Electronic Materials, will be speaking on Tuesday at the show.

5). Utility Scale & Centralized Solar: While many solar conferences reach out to home owners, Solar Power International concentrates heavily on the industry of utility-scale solar power. In time for the show utility PG&E (s PCG) announced that it has contracted with Abengoa Solar and NextEra Energy Resources for 500 MW of solar power from solar thermal technology.

6). High Efficiency, Lower Costs?: SunPower (s SPWRA), which already makes solar panels with some of the highest efficiencies in the world, has announced what it says is a new world record in time for the show: a full-sized solar panel with a 20.4 percent total area efficiency. SunPower thinks higher efficiency can cut costs, as Greentech Media’s Eric Wesoff reported SunPower says: it “spends a little more in cell processing to deliver savings across the value chain.”

7). What Do Abu Dhabi’s Solar Panels Look Like?: Probably the same as most of the panels out there, but Masdar PV, the solar subsidiary of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s cleantech venture, is showing off its thin film solar PV panels at Solar Power for the first time in the U.S. The company says it is ramping up production in Germany and is “considering the option of building an additional manufacturing facility in North America.” Masdar PV says that “Within the next years Masdar PV aims to become a top-3 global thin-film PV company.”

8). Look to Germany: Germany is still the largest buyer of solar tech, despite a stronger showing from the U.S. and China this year. Largely that’s because of the country’s feed-in-tariff regulation. According to Pike Research the U.S. is supposed to become the largest market for small solar energy installations by 2011, surpassing Germany. Of course there’s always lessons to learn from the leader.

9). The State of Net-Metering: A variety of U.S. states have taken it upon themselves to look to Germany to make their own net-metering laws, basically policies that allow people to sell electricity back to the grid from their own renewable energy facilities, such as a solar array or a wind turbine. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 pushed utilities to adopt net metering as a policy but enforcement and program design has fallen mostly to the patchwork of state utility regulators. So far in the U.S. 39 states have adopted programs to compensate consumers with grid-connected renewable energy systems, and New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania are leading the way.

10). How to Make Solar Sexy in a Recession: In a recession, fewer people are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to put solar on their rooftops. In response the industry has beefed up its marketing in an attempt to make solar cool and sexy. As Jennifer Kho writes in the New York Times Green Inc blog, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model will be making the rounds at the show this year. And in another sign that the industry is also trying to make solar the opposite of sexy, the event will also feature Hollywood actor Ed Begley Jr as a speaker on Tuesday.