America’s Biggest Solar Show ‘Isn’t Just a Solar Show Anymore’

America’s Biggest Solar Show ‘Isn’t Just a Solar Show Anymore’

The defining message of this year’s flagship solar industry show was hard to pin down.

Last year’s Solar Power International kicked off with a full-throated attack on the solar import tariffs that were being finalized at the time. The opening session featured industry heavyweights lobbing sick burns at tariff petitioners Suniva and SolarWorld, like Sunrun’s Ed Fenster saying, “It's a shame that we've got a couple of management teams that want to hold the industry and the planet hostage because they can't accept their own mistakes."

This year’s conference lacked a single, defined external threat for the industry to rally around. In fact, when we asked attendees what theme summed up the show, the wide range of answers told us there wasn’t one.

Perhaps that's a good thing. Progress continues. Finally, a year without an existential threat. Instead of facing some market-crushing policy, the national solar industry has found a period of stasis. Companies also continue to branch out into adjacent technologies, such as energy storage, electric vehicles and home automation.

As Smart Electric Power Alliance President and CEO Julia Hamm put it: “Clearly, this isn’t just a solar show anymore.”

The last two years of SPI drew vitality from the showmanship of Las Vegas, an artificial landscape in a desert that testifies to humanity’s ability to turn crazy ideas into reality. Conference-goers plotted the future of the industry in between rollercoaster rides atop skyscrapers and pocketing Benjamins at the nearby craps tables, while the nation’s largest rooftop solar installation soaked up sun above their heads.

SPI’s move to Anaheim situated the show in an artificial landscape dedicated to the celebration of decades-old cartoon characters. If the strip-malled setting inspired anything in SPI goers, it was the banality of monetizing earlier creative breakthroughs.

Greentech Media’s on-the-ground reporters hunted for market trends in the shadows of Disneyland's castle. Here’s what we found.

Tariffs, again

Tariffs were a back-of-mind concern compared to last year, but anti-dumping and countervailing (AD/CVD) duties and Section 201 still weighed on the event. A fresh round of Section 301 tariffs made sure attendees couldn't totally escape the Trump administration — even adjacent to the happiest place on earth.

JD Dillon, vice president of marketing and pricing at Enphase, lamented the uncertainty resulting from the 10 percent tariffs introduced through Section 301.

“There’s been too much ambiguity and uncertainty on what’s going to happen,” Dillon said. “When you get down to it, it’s not a huge impact. But not knowing is worse than knowing.”

SunPower, fresh off its Section 201 exclusion, is also in the midst of assessing the 301 impact, according to Norm Taffe, executive vice president of residential.

“It’s like, look to the left and look to the right and see what’s going to hit you,” he said of the lingering tariff anxiety.

The new round of tariffs could hit materials costs across the board, Taffe noted.

“As far as 301, there are ways that could impact us, and I think we’re still trying to understand to what extent,” said Taffe. “If we’re going to build in America, which is kind of what we’ve been asked to do, perfect example: It’s very hard to get glass anywhere but China at that kind of scale.”

REC Silicon, a victim of the AD/CVD duties, said on the show’s sidelines that its imperiled future could be clarified in the next couple of months. The company said it's “chasing everything we can to try to survive.”

Greentech Media confirmed on the show floor that small-time bifacial manufacturer Sunpreme joins the roster of solar players giving in to tariff pressures, with a facility planned for Texas.


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