I spent a day last week at Intersolar, the solar industry’s big annual trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco co-located with the SEMICON West show. Solar has taken some hard hits in the last year as a result of the spectacular flameout of Solyndra along with other under-the-radar bankruptcies and project cancellations. People are still awaiting the long-term impacts of two preliminary rulings by the Department of Commerce in its anti-China trade war, a March decision that imposes small duties on Chinese solar cell and panel makers in response to illegal subsidies, and a June move to slap huge anti-dumping tariffs.
The rumor at the show was that there were as many as 100 fewer exhibitors than last year. While I did see some empty spaces, and the booth space for a company I had wanted to meet had been turned into lounge area, the vendors with whom I spoke were quite happy with floor traffic the first two days of the show. There’s no question that the fact that the industry’s next big trade show, Solar Power International, moved its dates up to mid-September had a negative effect; several vendors complained about the short window between the shows.
The November election is definitely contributing to the general unease. No one is quite sure of the result of a Romney win, but guaranteed it won’t be a positive step for solar. Solyndra has become a byword for government waste of taxpayer dollars, tarnishing the reputation of the industry as a whole. Just last week congressional Republicans introduced legislation to phase out the loan-guarantee program that was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The bill is nicknamed the “No More Solyndras Act” although it would affect not only the solar industry, but other clean energy companies as well.
A prominent industry analyst told me not to expect things to get any brighter in 2013, particularly in the IPO market. Government incentives were designed to go away, but people grew businesses as if the incentives were permanent. It will take time for the industry to right-size.
It’s not all bad news, though. Venture capital investment in the solar sector was stronger in the first two quarters of this year than in 2011. One company I spoke with said they expect to double their sales this year for power efficiency systems (inverters, monitors and optimizers). I hope to hear more stories like theirs at Solar Power International.