Solar in Australia - It’s the vibe of the thing
If you want to really understand how the transition to solar is progressing, there’s no better way than going to a solar conference and talking to hundreds of solar companies from across the country.
For the last 25 years I have been attending solar conferences in Australia and abroad. This week’s ASC Solar Energy Exhibition & Conference 2017 was a great way to catch up with old friends and get a gauge on how solar companies from across the country see things.
Here’s a summary of some of the things we saw and learned.
As the inimitable Denis Denuto from the classic Australian film “The Castle” once said “It’s the vibe of the thing, your Honour”.
Big solar conferences always have a vibe. It can be positive, negative or just plain hard work. This year the vibe was, without doubt, upbeat and more optimistic than I have felt in a long time.
It goes like this. Firstly, solar prices continue to fall, even if you exclude the junk that continues to be sold in Australia. Great solar is as affordable as it has ever been.
Secondly, energy storage continues its unstoppable growth trajectory. There were many stories about the inevitable bumps in reliability and deployment that come with a new technology -batteries not lasting as long as predicted, and an industry catching up with complex control systems. But overall, there was a good sense of consolidation to proven products, mostly from big-name brands.
Like the early days of solar, it seems that education and a slow but steady approach is the key to success.
Thirdly, there was wide consensus that the National energy debate is driving fresh demand for solar and energy storage. The wide view was that the Federal Government’s clumsy attacks on renewables are simply not plausible to the majority of the general public. Trying to blame renewables for power lines being blown over in South Australia for example, just looked like a scam and Aussies can smell one from a mile away.
On top of that, power prices are about to rise again and big retailers like AGL are signalling major shifts in direction. Throwing a Billion dollars at a rail line to a coal pit in Queensland and trying to justify it as “good for humanity” just doesn’t cut through as helping Joe public.
Simply, consumers want more independence from the cost of energy. And solar delivers.
Death by a thousand handshakes
My favourite part of solar conferences is the incredibly diverse conversations. Walking around a hall with 3,000 solar installers, manufacturers and retailers is hard work. Typically, I get a “five steps per handshake” - say G’day, a handshake, a conversation, then repeat. It starts at 8am in the morning, and including the inevitable after parties, goes through until midnight for two full days. That’s 32 hours of perspective in 48 hours; no wonder we’re all exhausted!
Like any industry, solar industry success stories are built on strong relationships. Suppliers want installers they can count on. Customers want installers who will supply reliable solutions and support. Conferences like this solidify these relationships and are hugely valuable opportunities to learn from your peers.
My favourite part is also the diversity of views you pick up during a conference marathon, which builds an amazingly detailed picture of how things are tracking. Competition remains fierce, but there’s good evidence that the quality products and suppliers are holding their ground. As systems get more complex, increasingly intelligent solutions and support are needed.
We took a great mix of staff with us this year including our whole sales team, our senior operations engineer and our marketing technology manager. Between us, we all brought different perspectives and were able to help our installers with a broad suite of help: how to install faster, how we can help build brand strength, how to sell the features and so on.
Although there wasn’t a huge number of new products on show the theme that cut though for me is that everything is slowly but surely getting smarter. Dumb solar is so 1990; installers want faster, smarter and genuinely feature-rich solutions. Customers want value, simplicity and flexibility.
Solar Pioneers, 2.0
Although there were plenty of new friends to make, I also got to catch up with many fellow solar pioneer’s and even heard tales of innovation from renewable systems that were still going after more than 30 years.
One solar installer told me a story about a system in regional South Australia that was installed more than thirty years ago, which was ground breaking in its day, and is still being operated by the children of the original family who bought it. It’s well and truly due for retirement and has been upgraded over the years, but its long-term reliability has turned in to a huge emotional attachment for the family who are now bringing up a third generation with this amazing technology.
I also caught up with several old friends who, like me, are lucky enough to be able to proudly wear a Solar Pioneer pin, signifying our twenty-five years in solar. One of my old friends acknowledged that keeping up with the changing pace of solutions remains an eternal challenge, but walked away massively excited after I showed him how our products could solve problems for his customers and help him grow his solar business just a little bit more.
One of our founders (Dr Renate Egan) was also on hand and conducted a great stakeholder’s workshop pulling together input on how we could find new ways to use our products and data “for the greater good”. With an incredible 13,000 sites being monitored now, we are literally swimming in data, but there was a great surprise at this side show. As Renate posed questions on what people wanted to learn, members of the audience were jumping to the microphone saying things like “oh wait, I’ve got Solar Analytics and I can already see that – let me show you!” or “If you install like this, you can learn that” and so on. To have users and installers sharing real world experiences and the insights they already get was a great way to push the boundaries and pose the questions “what would you like next?”
So what’s next?
The big picture that I took away from Solar and Storage 2017 could be summed up like this:
1) The forecast for 20,000 energy storage systems in 2017 looks very real. Solid order bookings are already in place that make this level, perhaps even more, seem very plausible. However, you can’t slap a battery in and expect it to work like you can with dumb solar. It takes significantly more skill to specify, install and maintain a good storage solution.
2) Consumer sentiment is increasingly strong for residential solar, perhaps the best we have seen since 2012. It’s possible that we could break the forecast this year and at a long shot perhaps even get close to the all-time record for system sales if all factors align.
3) Commercial solar is a no-brainer and we expect very strong growth off the back of astounding (read 50% or more) increases in commercial energy rates. Expect a new record in sales and growth rates.
4) Large scale solar is finally going to take off this year in its truest form. The business case for off-take deals is extremely solid now. With wholesale forward prices at 10c kWh, solar can compete on un-subsidised terms.
5) Successful solar companies are increasingly leveraging more sophisticated tools like Solar Analytics to save time, save money and add value. As your customer fleet grows, the cost of supporting them needs to be carefully factored in.