By Philippe Hartley, Managing Director, CleanFinancing.com
Valiant efforts by organizers aside, the virtual Solar Power International/North America Smart Energy Week 2020 (SEW2020) felt like a work in progress, hinting to great lessons that will inform the event’s future. Clearly, the squint-at-your-screen equivalent of bustling, wet-bar networking events was not the high-point of the thing. But an attendee’s navigating challenges were rewarded by the serendipitous finds of strong content that came from trying to find the way to something else. Live or archived, this year’s sessions offered new perspectives and knowledge, in retrospect more intimately than you might have experienced in a large exhibit hall. From a big picture perspective, I got as much out of this show as from any since SPI 2006 in San Jose.
“The feedback is positive, but everybody is missing the in-person,” confided Gary Thuro, CEO of Solar Energy Trade Shows (SETS), the company behind the event. “Attendees were happy, frustrated, grateful…” The SETS team decided in August it had to cancel the in-person trade show, so it was a scramble. “But we’re still here,” added Thuro, “and next year’s show will be more virtual, even if COVID has been conquered.” Turn-out this year was about 3,000 virtual attendees and 200 exhibitors, a fraction of usual attendance. To the missing thousands, this recap is for you.
Over the five weeks of micro-conferences and the general session, I counted about 130 distinct online discussions (with 25% of panelists being women) that ranged from product presentations to long-view compass-setting for the industry, to settling scores on approach differentiation in distributed generation. There is a wealth of knowledge and perspective there, and all of them are still accessible until the end of the year — thank you SEW2020.
I chose four different discussions that represented, for me, the substantive and the impactful aspects of the seminal event that will forever be Smart Energy Week 2020. I am grateful that SETS unlocked these sessions to make them free for to all readers, a gift to the industry in these times.
This title came across my screen while I was in the site navigation weeds and it was like a great old friend popping in by surprise. This topic is so timely. Produced by the SunCast gang, it features credible and passionate representatives of each point-of-view who duke it out on the pesky question of how best to address demand management. Nico Johnson hosts with Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza on the production assist. To slice the arguments into contractor-centric perspective, they brought in a respected system designer, Jonas Villalba, VP at Promise Energy.
In one corner of the ring is John Powers, founder of Extensible Energy, a company that is making waves managing demand via software. In the other corner, Yotta Energy VP of Growth John Tanner, who had only a few minutes to promote the novelty of its panel-level storage before Nico pressed him into the debate. I won’t spoil the outcome for those who will watch, but there are moments of hilarity when the demand gladiators get into a debate about what part of a fast food menu each of their respective contribution represents. I am recommending here that SunCast add a ring side bell and a cheesy announcer to add color to this clever concept that yielded useful information in the process. As a financier, I consistently wonder if energy storage is being properly deployed, specifically when the PV cashflow runs amuck as storage is thrown in. I always suggest demand management. But it’s the number of different parallel use cases for storage that make this debate valid, even in instances when the cashflow is not there. This fun and compelling session is almost like entering the brain of a sales engineer as they attempt to determine the solution that delivers the ultimate efficiency for the client.
Anyone selling commercial solar + storage should watch this at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFfhqczHJ2I
From SEW2020’s Microgrid Channel, this is a medium-to-long view on how the industry is going to change, and it is arresting. For the last 10 years, I have been supporting the seeming inevitability that DC electricity would be the future standard for behind the meter (BTM). After all, PV, batteries, all your electronic devices and an increasing number of appliances actually run on DC. But currently we convert that power in our homes and offices to comply with grid AC standards, a very inefficient and wasteful process that no longer makes sense. Every solar design derates the yield of solar systems by 10 to 15% as the electricity goes through the inverter. Think about the cumulative impact that some of that recaptured energy would have on our consumer power needs if it were put to use. We could also get more out of our batteries, run our appliances more efficiently, save space in electrical equipment and bring purchasing and operating costs down by 20% or more. Think about the cost impact on data centers. Of course, it may not be good for the inverter industry, though there would still need to be conversion in front of the meter (converting the grid).
For this session we meet Brian Patterson with EMerge Alliance, a non-profit, open industry association based in Virginia, and he is a chief advocate of the DC future. He walks us through his vision of a DC world as it applies to microgrids of all shapes and sizes, from residential BTM to neighborhood power. He also previews a digital-based energy network, which he calls the ENERNET, linking all those microgrids. Patterson is effective and passionate in numerous webinars you might search for, including one called AC vs. DC in which he brings in a credible group of industry engineers to discuss the progress being made to achieve an international standard (380 V seems to be the number). This is an important subject to stay aware of, as it will impact the renewable energy industry and numerous other verticals in the visible future.
To see it, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDCej8oBvBw (to start directly at that segment, go to 1:24:00)
This one comes from SEW2020’s Hydrogen Channel. Who cannot get excited about having all our trash go to cleanly powering our homes and vehicles? To quote one slide from that session, 8 billion pounds of plastic waste on earth, over 2 billion tons of mixed waste buried each year into our landfills could become, ironically, the next clean energy source, and with no carbon dioxide byproduct. What’s better than carbon-neutral fuel? Carbon negative fuel, because it removes the impact of trash on the environment. Just writing this I feel relief in my guilt glands.
“This is not tomorrow, this is today,” said engineer Jean-Louis Kindler, CEO of Ways2H. This deeply knowledgeable French engineer delivers proof via a second-generation plant in Japan that is doing just that by taking raw untreated trash and cleanly converting it to hydrogen (H2) on a daily basis. By 2030, the demand for H2 between Europe and the United States will be 2.5 million tons and rising like a rocket. By that time, says a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology report, solar-powered electrolysis (producing green H2) could be at $2/kg or less (compared to an average of twice that today). Certainly, solar will address some of that demand, explained Kindler, but PV and wind already have huge growth curves ahead just to address our current energy needs; the 30,000 TWh of transportation fuel needed to decarbonize that industry must be sourced from additional and plentiful new sources. If The Graduate’s Mr. Robinson were to speak today, his advice to Benjamin might be “Forget plastics! Trash, Benjamin, trash! That’s the future.”
To see this presentation, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0Umi44lA0k (to start directly at that segment, go to 1:50:00)
The EV segment of SEW2020 was time shifted to the week after the official show dates. It gave attendees the opportunity to deep dive into a subject that, if they are into storage or PV, bores deeply into their future. In the renewable industry, it’s pretty much digested by now that transportation electrification is a huge cherry on a generous current and future ice cream sundae. But what might be missed is the challenge of resolving the issues that nag those that might otherwise make their next car an EV — range. People can plan to plug-in at home, but the idea of giving up access to the ubiquitous filling station to jump into a recharging desert is where the EV fantasy stops for many. My own neighbor recently ranted about California’s new 2030 requirement that all new vehicles must be electric, saying that “we can’t even keep the lights on, so how are we going to power transportation!” She had a point, and it is highlighted in this session where one of the panelists reminds us that “it would only take 100,000 EVs simultaneously participating in (third-party) managed charging on the California grid to completely saturate that grid’s ancillary services market.” (We currently have about 270,000 EVs in CA.) This particular web-panel is led by Smart Energy Power Alliance’s Erika Myers, and features four panelists representing CALSTART, Rocky Mountain Institute, Drive Electric Florida and Portland General Electric.
They take us though how to build the infrastructure that will make prospective EV owners comfortable enough to kick the gasoline can. This is stuff of policy, corporate objectives, planning and resource allocations, and public/private planning at a high level. While the subject might seem distant from the daily priorities of renewable energy folks, the subject points to the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional market value wrapped into the outcome of these panelists’ work. The role of solar within the EV roadmap is made definite in this discussion. The session stands out because it presents a well enunciated overview of the various challenges and models that will open up that transformational value in the new energy world.
To see it, go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iK-Wr_cUaO4&feature=youtu.be
Finally, an inside word about next year: Smart Energy Week 2021 will be, appropriately, distributed. It will consist of mini shows in different parts of the country, and a good dose of online content. So more cities, more bars, more screens, and more technology. It’s like the future come true.
Philippe Hartley is the Managing Director of CleanFinancing.com, a commercial funding agency.