In late October, the Solar Power International show celebrated its eighth anniversary in the great state of Texas by hosting more than 21,000 attendees from more than 100 countries at the Dallas Convention Center from October 17-20. Unlike a typical electrical trade show, this event was enormous in size and scope, featuring 1,200 exhibitors that filled up the entire second floor exhibit area (more than 1.1 million gross square feet of space). This venue provided attendees with lots of exercise each day, as they traveled from one end of the building to the other, seeking out the best new solar products and services.

Besides the hundreds of small booths on the show floor, there were many large and elaborate booths that showcased enormous displays — a few of which were two stories tall with massive projection screen televisions. Not only were a large number of Chinese-based companies present, but there were also special pavilions for German, Korean, and Taiwan-based companies, giving the event an international flair.

In addition to all of the major panel, cable, inverter, and battery manufacturers, one highlight at this year’s event was the fact that almost every exhibitor seemed to display the most innovative and unique type of mounting and racking system for its solar panels, each of which purportedly offered the best solution available in the market.

Career Opportunities

On the first day of the show, the Solar Foundation — a nonprofit solar education and research organization — released its second annual review of the solar workforce in the United States. According to “National Solar Jobs Census 2011: A Review of the U.S. Solar Workforce,” hiring in the solar workforce is on the rise. The report cited a 6.8% growth rate from August 2010 to August 2011, and noted more than 100,000 Americans are now employed in the solar industry.

At the state level, California continues to be the national leader in solar employment with 25,575 workers. Rounding out the top 10 states are Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts showed the strongest growth rates from August 2010. The National Solar Jobs Census 2011 also found that solar employers expect to increase the number of solar workers by 24%, representing nearly 24,000 net new jobs by August 2012.

In the lobby area, the show producer set up a career kiosk, featuring about 50 different job postings from a variety of solar-based companies. These listings included positions such as sales reps, business development managers, solar estimators, engineering managers, field service engineers, design engineers, project managers, and commercial installers. Needless to say, this proved to be a popular stop for many attendees.

There was also a conference session devoted to navigating a career in the solar market sector. This presentation reviewed an online, visual solar career mapping tool (available on the Department of Energy website at: http://energy.gov) that describes a number of cross-sector pathways within the component production, system design, sales and marketing, and installation and operations sectors.

Battle of the Subsidies

In quick response to a trade petition filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) and the Department of Commerce by seven U.S. solar manufacturers on October 19, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) conducted a briefing for show attendees to explain the filing and review process. The group that filed the petition, known as the Coalition of American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), claims that subsidies in China are allowing Chinese manufacturers to illegally dump their products in the U.S. market and drive out other competitors. This session and subsequent announcements/actions in recent weeks have created quite a stir among the manufacturers, designers, and installers in this green market sector.

Following Solar Power International, the CASM announced on November 7 that the United Steelworkers Union is supporting its cause, along with approximately 75 other companies. CASM also claims federal trade data shows Chinese exports into the United States in July alone exceeded all of 2010. On November 8, two executives from SolarWorld Industries America, Inc., Hillsboro, Ore., testified before the USITC on behalf of the group. The DOE agreed to launch an investigation into the matter.

On this same day, a rival group of 25 companies formed the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy (CASE), noting that “global competition is making affordable solar energy a reality in America and around the world,” and any “action to block or dramatically curtail solar cell imports from China places that goal at risk.” They view this trade complaint as short-sighted and warn it could lead to higher-priced components and slow down market growth. Within one week of forming, the coalition expanded to 52 members. According to CASE, it represents more than 9,600 jobs — or nearly 10% of the U.S. solar industry workforce.

On December 5, the USITC determined there was a reasonable indication the “U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of crystalline silicon and photovoltaic cells and modules from China that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the U.S. at less than fair value.” As a result of this ruling, the Department of Commerce will continue its investigation.

Making the Financial Case for PV

The big knock on a residential or commercial photovoltaic (PV) system is its price point. Without incentive support, the return on investment analysis doesn’t add up, just yet. As such, several conference sessions focused on the topic of economics and various financing options. The pros and cons of system ownership versus third-party financing were reviewed, along with tax equity financing alternatives, including partnership flips, sale-leaseback transactions, leases with credit pass-through arrangements, prepayment structures, and “twinning” with new markets tax credits. These discussions spanned residential, commercial, industrial, and utility-scale type projects.

One of the residential financing presentations explained several reasons why a leasing program works: it shifts the risk/responsibility from the homeowner to the third-party service provider; locks in rates and/or guaranteed production levels; and addresses the key customer concern of high upfront costs. Some market estimates state lease options now make up 50% of the residential market.

A key factor to maintaining the industry’s current momentum is an extension of the 1603 Treasury Program. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 created the 1603 Treasury Program, which allows the owner of commercial solar property to receive a 30% grant, in lieu of taking the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC). Residential solar systems are also eligible if the system is owned by a third-party developer through a power purchase agreement (PPA) or lease. Applicants are eligible for 1603 only if they commence construction on projects by Dec. 31, 2011 and complete construction by Dec. 31, 2016. According to the SEIA, as of November 2011, the 1603 Treasury Program awarded more than 3,200 grants totaling $1.4 billion for more than 22,000 individual solar projects in 46 states and has supported more than $3.2 billion in private investment.