What we took home from SPI 2010: optimism for CPV’s next 3 years, 263 really interesting contacts..oh, and some bedbug bites

Last week was my first SPI.  I had been to academic conferences before, notably the American Association of Geographers annual meeting, where I was amazed at 7,000 to 8,000-thick crowds, but at this year’s SPI 28,000 bodies jostled along the corridors of the LA Convention Centre’s three trade show halls, snapping endless amounts of photos with the latest DSLRs, even pulling out self-lighting magnifying glasses (a good thing the Sun Simba is v. difficult to reverse engineer), and taking pages and pages of glossy brochures from people like me, on guard in front of our respective booths.

After the daily pilgrimages to and from the convention centre, the pre-, post-, and during-conference sessions, and the long lines leading up to Starbucks’ counter – what do you take home from a massive and intense event like this? Although I’m a vegetarian, I can imagine it’s a bit like digesting the full burger, animal fries, and milkshake combo from the In & Out Burger, where John Paul insisted we go upon arriving at LAX.

(Photo courtesy of SPI’s Flickr set)

So, after a week back home in Toronto, here are three things that I took home from SPI:

1. A greater certainty that, after a series of false starts and overpromises, the number and scale of concentrating PV deployments will soon pick up. Dr. Sarah Kurtz, a Principal Scientist at NREL and probably the person most capable of an objective evaluation of the technology, said that moves by the established CPV players – Amonix, SolFocus, and Concentrix – past testing to real production, combined with an emerging appetite for utility-scale projects from governments and utilities, point to a growth opportunity for concentrating panels.  Spire’s announcement of 42.3% efficient III-V cells and increasing silicon processing costs also support a degree of optimism for CPV.

As Dr. Kurtz said, however, sustained growth will hinge on field performance: proof of long-term reliability is a must for project bankability. Of course, any new technology needs to demonstrate performance and reliability before widespread market adoption, but in the case of energy technologies, where even small projects can cost a few million dollars, the challenge of gathering the initial data to support large-scale developments results in a bit of a catch-22.

Bankability is the core of our efforts right now, and what we hope our self-funded 2 MW project in the City of Lancaster will achieve.

2. The importance of good government programs. SPI may be an international conference, as its name states, but the locales printed on attendees’ nametags matched up pretty well with the places with the most supportive or effective government solar energy programs. We encountered a number of friendly names and faces from Ontario – including from the Ontario Power Authority, Endura Energy, Helios Solar, and the University of Toronto.  Other well-represented locales included California (of course); New Jersey; and Germany.  On that note, let’s hope Proposition 23 isn’t repealed.

3. Remembering why you’re there. Next to speaking with several very engaging people with very interesting projects, I most enjoyed a presentation during the first day’s CPV session, made by a PhD candidate at the University of California Berkeley.  With his permission, I’m hoping to post his slides soon.  Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab used their SWITCH model (stands for ‘Solar and Wind Integration with Transmission and Conventional generation on an Hourly Basis’) to evaluate the environmental impacts of CPV versus conventional PV and fossil fuel generation technologies.  CPV panels – namely the SolFocus and Amonix panels studied – came out with less of an impact on all fronts analyzed:

  1. The energy payback time for concentrating panels is a quarter that of conventional PV panels (0.6 and 0.7 years for SolFocus and Amonix modules, respectively, versus 2.2 – 2.7 for Silicon panels)
  2. The greenhouse gases emitted from producing each kWh of CPV module is a half to a quarter that of Silicon panels (20 and 12 tons of CO2 equivalent for SolFocus and Amonix, respectively, versus 45 tons for Silicon panels).
  3. The water demands of module washing are 1.2 to 2.5 times less than other PV technologies (largely because of the efficiency).

We’re looking into doing a lifecycle analysis of the Sun Simba , which use different materials and manufacturing processes than SolFocus and Amonix.

The CPV industry still has challenges though: the areas where concentrating panels perform best are often deserts with fragile ecosystems.  A question discussed in the session was how do you secure large, expensive systems, without fencing off and essentially fragmenting parcels of desert?  I’ve been reading up on this issue on the Mojave Desert Blog here.

About the bedbugs – I’m not going to name the hotel here, because it was honestly only one room, only one night, and they dealt with it, but two of my colleagues were unfortunate victims of the current epidemic across North America.  Perhaps some of the bright minds that we met at the conference could be applied to solving this problem – it may be the post-SPI optimist in me speaking, but it seems like most of the technologies and minds are already there to solve the energy crisis.

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