Total clean energy disruption is here and three other takeaways from Intersolar 2018

Starting with the opening keynote presentations on through the innovations on the expo floor, Intersolar 2018 was all about disruption. Yes, even those of you already succeeding in solar today, if you’re not careful, you could be disrupted too. Here’s what jumped out at us in San Francisco last week.

1. Total clean energy disruption is coming, and it’s bigger than you think it is.

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Keynote speaker Tony Seba was the disruption tone setter. For those unfamiliar, Seba is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, an instructor in Entrepreneurship, Disruption and Clean Energy at Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program and author of Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation. His work focuses on clean energy, entrepreneurship and market disruption of the world’s major industries, such as energy, transportation, infrastructure, finance and manufacturing.

Yea, it’s a lot, but luckily he summarized it all in his presentation to kick off Intersolar. He makes the case that energy storage, EVs, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles are on a path to converge very soon, and that the convergence of technology and business models in such a way is always the heart of true disruption.

“Every single technology has been adopted as an S curve. It is never a line,” Seba said. Consider the fact that cars replaced the horse and buggy in a mere 10-year span – and that’s in the days of, well, horse and buggy. His research shows how the tipping point for disruption has always led to a sharp S-curve trajectory, which is only getting sharper in our current time. “S curves are accelerating. It takes months or a year or two. More like J curves now. But yet there are still just straight lines in projections.”

Fast forwarding to the end scenario he lays out (which he originally laid out four years ago, and is right on track) is a world with little to no car ownership because of how much more economic sense it will make to “Uber” everywhere via fleets of automated ride services. This scenario upends much of our modern infrastructure — an abundance of storage on the grid, no use for parking lots, etc. I can’t really do it justice, so I’d recommend watching the full presentation for way more details.

The takeaway I’d like to highlight for the solar industry though is how winners of a disruption are rarely incumbents. Seba points to Kodak as a quick example. Kodak invented digital photography, had its best year ever, and then was basically out of business in under 10 years. Yes, despite that constant steep S curve, projection systems and experts and thought leaders are never prepared when that disruption hits. Companies you’ve never heard of are already ramping up to own the automated driving fleet space and random companies like Dyson are taking educated stabs in the dark at launching their own line of EVs.

For clean energy, the technology and economics are already there, it’s just a matter of a few other chess pieces moving into place, or dots connecting, or whatever other game analogy you’d like to use. If you smell what Seba is cooking, make your plans for this new world now.

2. You should try and win this funding competition.

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Did that disruption talk get you excited, or get the gears turning on the next big idea? Well, hurry and tell the Department of Energy about it and you might get hooked up with a network of people to help implement it, along with some cash.

The DOE’s American Made Challenge Solar Prize competition is awarding $3 million in prizes as well as support from the DOE’s U.S,-based network to help grow, build business plans, prototypes and funding sources for labs and innovators. Additional cash prizes are then awarded to the most viable concepts.

“What role does DOE want to have? To focus on early stage research and forge strong partnerships with the private sector,” said Elaine Ulrich, Senior Advisor, Solar Energy Technologies Office, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Department of Energy. “We know this is the cornerstone of our success, so a new way we speed innovation is through prize competitions.”

And speed it, it does. This isn’t a laborious grant application process, but a series of contests. Record a 90 second video with a strong pitch and answer four questions: What’s the problem? What’s the solution? Who is on the team? What’s the plan?

The field will be winnowed to about 20 to 40 winners (for a max of $50,000 each) to about 12 after the proof of concept stage (an and additional $200,000 possible), until finally two winners will emerge with $500,000 to launch company.

“Within six months, you could have $750,000 in cash and $150,000 in facility vouchers and tapped into a full network,” Ulrich said. “This is just the first, of hopefully many of these contests.”

Oct. 5 is the submission deadline.

3. Yes, there is still new ground to break in ground-mounted solar.

We saw and heard about several design changes in ground-mounted solar that can forge new paths in underserved segments or take over/grow established segments. We can’t talk about all of them right now (stay tuned for Solar Power International), but here are a few to note.

AP Alternatives Ready Rack

AP Alternatives Ready Rack.

AP Alternatives‘ Ready Rack mounting hardware is designed for both large utility-scale projects and small commercial projects. The small helical anchors and quick install cross bracing make the simple system robust even for high wind zones.

What we liked: This system is nimbly installed with an attachment that fits on a skid steer, which opens up the 20 to 100-kW market up much more for small solar contractors to grow and scale their business.

Soltec bifacial tracking

Live at the Soltec Bifacial testing facility.

We will have more on this topic in our Sept./Oct. issue, but just know that the industry is very focused on finding true, objective results for bifacial modules deployed in various tracker combinations. The price point on bifacial modules may not make sense for wide deployment just yet, but when it does, highly bankable systems from Soltec and Array Technologies, to name two, will be at the ready. Soltec has built a testing ground and is working with NREL and Black and Veatch to gather a complete data set on the harvest of bifacial modules on solar trackers.

Alion tracker

Alion Energy tracker.

This Alion Energy tracker is definitely not for all sites – it has a very specific value proposition for tough and dusty terrains by incorporating a self-cleaning function. There is a lot of concrete needed to install this system, but you could picture it opening up new sites in remote, harsh desert landscapes because of how often its panels could be cleaned with an automated system that uses much less water and no labor.

4. Solar + storage value is much clearer on both the large and small scale.

SolArk

You’ll want to check out the Sol-Ark inverter.

On the small-scale side, we saw the most efficient solar + storage inverter on the market, and it isn’t from SolarEdge or Tesla but from little-known Sol-Ark. We explain DC transformerless architecture in greater detail in our Sept./Oct. print issue, but the quick story is this inverter is able to maintain an impressively high efficiency – both peak and consistent – in battery and grid tied scenarios.

On the large-scale side, more and more storage is being built into projects. First Solar recently signed a project contract for 150 MW of storage, for example. The key stat came from Joachim Seel, Scientific Engineering Associate at the Electricity Markets and Policy Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, U.S.: At least six PPAs this year have featured PV-plus-long-duration storage that do not seem to be priced at a prohibitive premium to PV only.

Oh yeah, that reminds me of one more quote from Seba’s presentation: “At some point soon solar-plus-batteries will be cheaper than transmission,” Seba stated. Insert thinky emoji here.

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