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Taking the U.S. Solar Industry to the Next Level

“It’s an exciting time to be in the solar industry in America,” says Tom Kimbis, Vice President of Strategy and External Affairs at SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association). He shares with InterPV magazine what he hears every day from U.S. solar companies and discusses some of the critical tasks that need to be done to take the U.S. solar industry to the next level.

Reported by Jeanny H. Lim (swied@infothe.com)




Could you introduce some recent U.S. policies for solar?

Smart policies have driven the U.S. market. In 2008, Congress enacted an eight-year law extending our 30% investment tax credit for all solar property. That means, until the end of 2016, all end users of solar systems receive a 30% credit payment back from the U.S. government. That is a substantial investment by the U.S. federal government to promote solar, and is helping make solar affordable for millions of Americans and businesses. Many of the policies that we are promoting today are at the state level, including defending net metering (the right to sell excess power produced by distributed generation systems back into the electric grid) and the right to interconnect to the electric grid easily.


What is your prediction for the U.S. solar market this year?

Last year, the U.S. solar energy industry installed a record 1,855 Megawatts (MW) of capacity, more than doubling the previous annual record of 887 MW set in 2010. The record amount of solar installations are enough to power more than 370,000 homes, and represents a 109% growth rate in 2011. It is the first time the U.S. solar market has topped the one gigawatt mark. We estimate the U.S. solar market’s total value surpassed US$8.4 billion in 2011. This unprecedented growth was spurred in part by declining installed solar Photovoltaic (PV) system prices, which fell 20% last year on the back of lower component costs, improved installation efficiency, expanded financing options, and a shift toward larger systems nationwide. This year, we expect the U.S. market to again double to more than 3 GW. By 2014, the U.S. and China should be the largest markets in the world.



What do you consider as emerging opportunities in the U.S. solar market?

The opportunities across the U.S. are largely being driven by individual states. Today, California and New Jersey are the two largest markets for installations of solar. However, other states are beginning to emerge as leaders. In the fourth quarter of 2011, Arizona installed more solar than any other state. We are also seeing a large opportunity growing in the utility-scale markets. Traditionally, the U.S. market has been dominated by commercial installations on the roofs of businesses. But the largest growth we saw this past year was in the utility-scale sector. We expect this trend to continue. Lastly, we see a growing opportunity for manufacturing in the U.S. after many years of America losing manufacturing jobs. Large solar companies are looking to the U.S. to locate factories, despite higher labor rates than many Asian countries, because companies want to build solar products close to the source of demand. Also, solar factories are becoming more automated, making the cost of labor less important.


What are some of the critical tasks that need to be done to take the U.S. solar industry to the next level, do you think?

First, we need to make it easier for all Americans to ‘go solar’ by eliminating obstacles to connecting to the electric grid. This means working with utilities, local governments and homeowners associations. Second, we need to make sure that there is adequate financing for solar systems. Financing has been difficult since the global financial collapse in 2008, and has been slow to improve. Third, we need to protect the policies we already have in place from those who do not want to see solar to succeed. Lastly, it is important to continually educate policymakers and the public about the benefits of solar and the ability to choose your power sources.


Do you have any policy goal for PV (that you are pushing forward)?

We want to develop financing mechanisms through policies that allow more Americans to choose solar. Any policies that lower the barriers to the deployment to solar are welcomed. The goal of the industry is to achieve 10 GW of annual, new installations each and every year by 2015, and we are on the path to do this with the right policy choices. Today, solar is cost-competitive with traditional energy resources in certain parts of the U.S. We look forward to the day when that is true across the whole country.


What are some of the voices--opinions or complaintsyou hear from U.S. solar companies?

I hear every day that lack of affordable financing is the largest obstacle today to widespread use of solar. The most common complaint is the multiple layers of bureaucracy that companies have to go through to install solar, from federal, state, county and local governments to utilities and homeowner associations. I also hear great optimism about solar in the U.S. as companies like Google, Facebook, and Wal-Mart turn to solar, along with the U.S. government, especially the military. It’s an exciting time to be in the solar industry in America.



SolarWorld has submitted a petition to the U.S. DOC and the U.S. International Trade Commission and claims that Chinese PV manufactures are dumping product to capture the market share. Could you share your view on the war between SolarWorld and Chinese solar companies?

Global trade in solar products has been good for the United States by expanding export opportunities for domestic manufacturers, creating jobs and driving down costs to consumers. As global competition intensifies, we will continue to support open markets based on free and fair trade principles. It is critical that governments and private parties operate within the framework of internationally-negotiated trade rules.

If it appears that trade obligations are not being met, solar companies like SolarWorld have the right to request an investigation into alleged unfair trade practices. These allegations must be thoroughly examined and, if unlawful trade practices are found, action to remedy those practices should be taken. In turn, parties accused of unfair trade practices, like the Chinese, also have the right to defend themselves in the process of these investigations.


Could you introduce SEIA to the readers of InterPV?

Established in 1974, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is the national trade association of the U.S. solar energy industry. Through advocacy and education, SEIA is working to build a strong solar industry to power America. As the voice of the industry, SEIA works with its 1,100 member companies to make solar a mainstream and significant energy source by expanding markets, removing market barriers, and strengthening the industry. Our sister organization, The Solar Foundation, uses research and education to promote positive policy and further deployment of solar energy in the U.S.



You have a whopping 1,100 members. Where do you think your strength comes from?

I believe our strength comes from the benefits that we offer to our members. The greatest benefit is our ability to represent the entire solar industry with a single voice. We can use that collective power to represent solar energy interests in Washington at the federal level, and in all fifty states of the U.S. We represent all solar technologies including Photovoltaics (PV), Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) and Solar Thermal (ST)and all market segments including utility-scale, commercial, and residential markets. We have been working for more than 35 years to support solar, so most solar companies in the U.S. know what we do and how hard we work for them. But there is still much work to do to build the U.S. market.


You recently visited EXPO Solar/PV Korea 2012 which was held from Feb 15-17 in Seoul, Korea. What was the purpose your visit?

Korea is playing an increasingly important role in the global solar marketplace. Although SEIAs mission is to grow the U.S. market, it represents 1,100 companies from across the worldGermany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan, and more. We have few members from Korea, however. We realized that we had to learn more about this growing power in Korea, and believed that ‘EXPO Solar/PV Korea 2012’ was the right place to do so. Clearly, just like in the automobile sector, Korean companies have the opportunity to make a large impact in the U.S. market in solar. Through this visit, we were able to meet some of the executives of the Korean solar industry, understand their needs and interests, and make important contacts.


Jeanny H. Lim is Editor-in-Chief of InterPV. Send your comments to swied@infothe.com.



For more information, please send your e-mails to pved@infothe.com.

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