The Future is Bright: Got Sunglasses?
Remember when we were kids and adults told us not to stare at the sun because it would make us go blind?
In spite of these warnings many of us threw caution to the wind and took a look anyway, and fortunately for us the consequences were probably not that severe. Fast forward to modern day, the sun has recaptured the attention of millions with the promise of cheap energy. Now the big question in my mind – who is going to go blind or broke staring too long at this market?
Solar power is the darling of the new cleantech economy. This was made very clear during my recent visits to Solar Power International (SPI), Intersolar (in San Francisco) and the NREL Industry Growth Forum. I was particularly astounded when I learned that SPI had 20,000+ attendees which is a substantial improvement from its attendance of a few thousand only four years ago. The big question for me – is this growth sustainable? Obviously, there are arguments on both sides and I will leave those debates for those better informed and with more time on their hands. I think everyone would agree that, for now, this growth is here to stay.
So how do we ensure that the US economy remains in a prime position to capitalize on the expanding market? There is no doubt that several emerging economies would like to claim the growing solar industry and make it a permanent staple of their GDP. Countries, like the US, that have been outsourcing semiconductor manufacturing are disadvantaged. Many people compare the process of semiconductor manufacturing to that of silicon solar panel manufacturing. Therefore countries that manufacture semiconductors have the infrastructure and the know-how already in place. I think most people in the industry would agree that China, India and other Asian countries are going to dominate the silicon solar market. On the other hand, technologies that support CdTe and proprietary/experimental applications are going to be largely developed in the US.
We will have to wait and see what panel technologies win the most market share. Can a foreign panel maker successfully market its product to US consumers with little to no production presence in this country? Can a US company successfully develop and commercialize a product that is economically competitive with those that are non-domestic?
One thing is for sure, this industry currently has more traction than it ever has in years past and big dollars have been bet on some big horses. There is no denying the interest or the potential upside surrounding this market, and if the pace continues we will have that new energy economy that everyone got so excited about two and a half years ago, so enjoy the ride and dont forget your sunglasses.