5 hot topics to watch for at Intersolar

This year started rather rough for the solar industry. A number of companies in the U.S. and abroad reported sluggish sales amid uncertainties about the extent of government incentive cuts in large European markets such as Italy and France. That climate is the backdrop for the solar industry, which will gather for one of the largest solar energy shows in the U.S., Intersolar, in San Francisco, this week. Policy, along with technology and how to break into new markets, will dominate the discussions. Here are five topics to watch for during the conference:

1. State of solar. California will be featured prominently in policy discussions, partly because the conference provides a chance for the state to attract new solar businesses. California is the largest solar market in the country, thanks to its incentive policy and a mandate that requires utilities to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. California offers payments for solar installations for homes, businesses and government agencies. Gov. Jerry Brown, who wants to be remembered as a clean-power advocate similar to his predecessor, has talked about increasing the renewable energy mandate above the already high 33 percent.

2. The efficiency horse race. The solar market is dominated by solar panels that use silicon as the key ingredient to produce power. But a growing number of companies are entering the market by using alternative materials that compete either on price or how efficient they are at converting sunlight to electricity, or both. Researchers and developers of various technologies will talk about how they boost efficiencies during the conference. Efficiencies are key metrics for determining solar panels’ worth and how well suited they are for small spaces like rooftops or locations that might face some shade during parts of the day.

3. The rise of energy hoarders. Since solar power can’t be produced around the clock, figuring out ways to bank it will be crucial to extending its use. The stored power also can be released to help smooth out any grid fluctuations, which can happen when a lot of solar power is added onto a grid at peak sunny times. Both the federal and state governments have collectively approved billions of dollars for research and deployment of energy-storage technologies in the past two years. Since many of the technologies, such as batteries and compressed air, are still under development, there are a variety of issues to work out before grid storage will become commonly used.

4. How to survive with limited incentives? The solar industry needs government policy and monetary support to grow, but it can’t always count on those lifelines. Two federal programs that were created by the 2009 stimulus package are ending this year. One provides guarantees for loans for renewable-energy manufacturing and power plant construction, which means that the government will pay back the loans if the borrowers can’t. The second one offers rebates to cover 30 percent of a power-generation project’s cost. The solar industry’s chief lobbying group is working on extending the rebate program but thinks the loan-guarantee program is likely too controversial to be renewed. Republicans control the House, and they want to cut renewable-energy research and development spending as a way to rein in spending during fiscal 2012.

5. A global outlook. The U.S. could surpass European countries such as Germany and Italy as the biggest solar market in the world soon. But China and India are gunning for that title, too, by crafting incentive programs and setting national installation goals. First Solar is working (s FSLR) aggressively to create new markets in Asia for its solar panels. Thailand has been mentioned as a good market to enter. Basically, solar manufacturers and project developers are looking at any country that is implementing policies similar to those that have turned Europe into the mecca of solar power use.

Photo courtesy of SolarCity