News from the Front: SPI 2015 in Review

Earlier this month ANTARES returned to Solar Power International. I made the trek across the country to Anaheim and met up with Ali Schmidt from our Petaluma, CA office for a non-stop week of all things solar (you can check out Ali’s reflections on the event in a previous blog post here). If you’re unfamiliar SPI, it’s the largest solar conference in North America and amasses over 15,000 solar industry professionals from 75+ countries for a week-long affair of networking events, industry speakers, education sessions, and of course the expo hall floor with more than 600 manufacturers, service providers, and vendors.

This year’s host was the Anaheim Convention Center just across the way from Disneyland, not surprisingly the de facto location for this year’s perennial SPI Block Party. This attendee was dragged kicking and screaming to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror by his boss in what I have assumed was a lesson in stress management  (see embarrassing photo evidence).

spi conference

Listening to the array of speakers and checking out the newest equipment offerings always gives a good pulse on the current trends of the industry and what the next big thing is going to be in solar. This year’s major themes seemed to be the grid of tomorrow and what I ended up dubbing ITC Chicken Little.

With the continued flourishing of utility-scale solar deployment, it’s likely no great surprise that storage was a hot-button issue at this year’s conference. With increased T&D penetration levels and larger MW-scale projects becoming common on both coasts, the DSO/ISO/RTO’s ability to manage those resources and best put them to use where they’ll mean the most has taken center-stage in discussions of what the grid will ultimately look like 5, 10, 20 years forward and beyond. The big buzzwords here from grid operators were demand response, peak shifting, and voltage & frequency regulation. The take-away is that the energy solar generates doesn’t necessarily coincide with the peak demand periods when it is most needed to offset dispatchable, costly spinning reserves that grid operators have to call on during those big demand periods. Further the intermittent nature of solar power without storage can create power quality and forecasting issues for grid operators. Here, storage can step in and stockpile that energy to be discharged at a later, more opportune time or supplement solar output during the daytime at moments when the PV system sees a sudden drop in power output (for example, when cloud cover rolls over a project site). And these technologies aren’t limited just to the larger utility-scale installs; some of the biggest buzz is coming from the residential sector where models for monetizing in-home storage through grid support functions will likely be popping up in the near term.

Storage may also work together with newer smart solar inverter functionality which will allow for, among other things, dispatchable reactive power control and advanced ride-through settings for increased grid stability. Larger systems may also start to see curtailment of PV output power by grid operators.

And of course, like a raincloud hanging over the conference, there was the looming threat of the expiration of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) which is set to be reduced to 10% for commercial projects and eliminated altogether for residential projects at the end of 2016. Industry advocacy groups shared the role of Chicken Little speculating of severe detrimental effects on the rapidly growing solar industry pointing to the expiration of the wind PTC and the resulting boom-bust of that industry. As solar starts to approach, and in some places surpass, grid parity the opinions around the industry on how to deal with the incentive expiration vary from demands for extending the ITC outright, to stepping it down slowly allowing the industry to react gradually, to just a handful arguing it’s the time to say goodbye to the long-time federal incentive.

But regardless of the final decision on the ITC, it seems that the new EPA Clean Power Plan could help bridge that gap with the newly approved policy which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from national electricity generation by 30% by 2030 (based on a benchmark of 2005 emissions). Generally, it certainly seems that the industry has just about reached a boiling point and it’s now become essential to start looking at solar from a more holistic point of view as part of the bigger-picture of national power infrastructure. As usual, policy from our government agencies, state level commissions, and utility grid operators leads the way. It’s an exciting time for the power sector as a whole as all stakeholders work to shape the next generation of our transmission and distribution systems.

About Evan Merkel

Evan Merkel is a Renewable Energy Engineer from Baltimore, MD. He loves the smell of PV in the morning. He can be contacted at

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