Solar Power International 2017: What Happens in Vegas Can’t Stay in Vegas.

It should be a requirement that everyone in solar should attend an industry-wide conference once in their lives. Like a natural ecosystem or the grid itself, the solar industry is a vast and utterly interconnected machine. There are no silos and there can’t be, due to the basic nature of both electrical power and human society itself.

Working in one or two companies gives you a limited view as to how the whole solar show all fits together, and since the media and communications components of the solar industry are so massively under-resourced, everyone regardless of job function is inevitably put in an educational position.

As a panelist at the only session specifically devoted to communications so wisely said: “All companies are media companies.” Yes – there was only one session at SPI devoted solely to communications, which when taking into account the massive amounts of information exchanged at such an event, isn’t all that surprising. But anything not specifically addressed usually remains ignored.

low income access to community solar
Poster by Vote Solar’s Marta Tomic and Melanie Santiago-Mosier, JD: “True clean energy equity means that the benefits of solar are accessible to everyone, regardless of whether solar is installed on your roof or around the corner. So far, only 15 states and the District of Columbia have legislatively enabled community solar programs, and of these, only a few states have developed community programs and policies that provide tangible benefits for low-income households and promote their participation. This poster identifies the key barriers to developing viable community solar programs for low-income communities that stand the most to gain:

Much of the heavy lifting in the communications department was done by the Poster Gallery, and if you didn’t get to go to the conference, this is the thing to check out. It’s all on an online Poster Gallery now, in all its glory… You have to register for a free Eventscribe account, but the information is priceless, from Commercial and Industrial topics to Policy, Storage, Finance, Residential, Smart Grid, and Technical Abstracts.

As every salesperson knows, the minute you open your mouth about your job at a dinner party, you’re asked about baseball impacts on panels, why you can’t hook up your car battery instead of buying a fancy Powerwall, or my favorite question of the week (worthy of a post of its own): if utilities are buying more renewable energy these days, why aren’t electricity rates going down? Great question there!

It’s no longer acceptable that Americans learn everything they will ever learn about clean energy from Bill Nye in fourth-grade science, and then immediately forget it. Fossil fuel companies are not stopping the direct mail onslaught anytime soon, which leads me to my first memorable number:

  • $33 trillion. This is the amount of money that fossil fuel companies stand to lose from stranded assets over the next 25 years if global society acts on climate change, according to an Barclays energy analyst. This was one of the focal points of the keynote given by CEO Dan Gregory of microgrid specialists Pos-En, a Star Wars-themed presentation that stood out for its spirit. (His son, a psychology major, suggested the theme.) I have included his slides below – not just amusing, they also bring up many intriguing themes, like the promise of expanded direct current applications. (Some say this is inevitable, and I doubt anyone in Florida or the Caribbean is ruling out any options.) The solar industry finds itself in the awkward and unique position of being both a late-stage capitalist industry and the group of people ushering in the Golden Age of renewable energy, which not only requires technological innovation but courageous social decision-making at a time when American democracy is essentially non-functional. It’s not like America is the only country to play a role in this, but we still have incredible advantages of wealth, a legacy of investing in higher education, and a commitment to technological innovation. If there were a time for an engineer’s battle cry, it would be now.SPI_Keynote_V2
  • The Technical Symposium! This was the first one at Solar Power International (after five years of lobbying by researchers) and I tell you, it was amazing. Researchers from at least eight universities and some of the most innovative companies in the business were there. I will have to do another blog post just on this. Maybe in two years we will have communications and messaging charrettes too…. Something to think about.
  • The 51st State Project. The Smart Energy Power Alliance is the cosponsor with SEIA of Solar Power International and is the entity charged with the monumental task of interfacing between utilities and energy clean tech during a period of grid modernization. They are addressing this charge with aplomb and creativity, as evinced by the 51st State Project, an initiative which aims to rearrange and re-envision utility function for a theoretical open-book state. Check it out at this link.

There was just too much for a 600-word post but these are my initial thoughts. Happy to talk to anyone about these initiatives and I hope that everyone does indeed get a chance to attend an SPI event, or the American Solar Energy Society conference in Colorado next month.





Why I Started the Greater Phila. Renewable Energy Society

Greater Philadelphia Renewable Energy Meetup

Philadelphia, PA
247 Members

Making the clean energy transition: it’s going to take all of us!We are a social/networking Meetup/social/networking for folks who work in the region on renewable energy and …

Check out this Meetup Group →


In January 2016, while working in sales for SolarCity, I started a new group in Philadelphia to promote renewable and clean energy based on a very successful organization I had seen in Colorado, called CRES.

The Colorado Renewable Energy Society is a statewide, volunteer-run catchall organization with the broad-brush mission of promoting clean power. I volunteered with them in 2015, and was inspired. Large enough to have multiple chapters with well-attended meetings, CRES is a collection of tinkerers and DIYers, clean energy technical, sales, and entrepreneur types, political advocates and government officials, quietly radical utility employees, videographers, writers…It was a curious, fertile, and energetic mix. Jargon-heavy conversations were balanced with the notes of visionaries, and the personality types bounced off each other well.

CRES had been around for a long time, and had been one of the primary drivers behind the passage of Colorado’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard of 30 percent, the then-highest in the nation and one of the greatest impetuses to clean power development in Colorado. Like Pennsylvania, Colorado is one of the most heavily loaded fossil-fuel “energy states” in the country, but unlike Pennsylvania, it has taken advantage of its renewable resources as well, and has developed a thriving clean energy economy.

It was a real-life example of what I’d read in Richard Lester and David Hart’s very good book, Unlocking Energy Innovation: How America Can Build a Low-Cost, Low-Carbon Energy System. Written in 2012, it spelled out the social conditions for development of an “innovation system” in clean energy, similar to the systems that American policy and industry historically colluded to promote information technology, oil and gas, nuclear power, or healthcare technology.

According to Lester and Hart, a clean energy innovation system does not arise spontaneously from consumer will or popular interest – it is fostered through institutional arrangements that make it possible, each taking a role in an extended period of time diagrammed into four stages of energy innovation:

lester and hart one

They identified a number of these institutions and social arrangements (some you already know, like government research funding, and some that are “under discussion”, like utility regulations) that made this possible, but also some of the current obstacles to advancement at each stage of the process:

lester an d hart two

Developing the innovation ecosystem in Philadelphia and the region – seeing which obstacles we could address – is why I started the Greater Philadelphia Renewable Energy Society. Working for a solar company at the time that was only allowed to interconnect with the electric company in the suburbs, I knew that regionalism was needed for this to cohere (hence the “greater.”) I also knew that there were solo clean energy fans floating around out there like spare electrons. I was hoping GRPES would be a nucleus for them.

Philadelphia has very different resources than centers of energy innovation in the country. Our social resources are different, our economic resources are different, our history and knowledge are different. We don’t have Massachusetts’ liberal state government, or the earnest billionaires of Silicon Valley. To develop our regional clean energy economy, it is important for us to determine what those resources are, and build a popular movement to support them. Clean energy innovation is a vast field, with needs as diverse as its potential. Our fossil-fuel twin, Texas, is the nation’s largest oil and gas producer, and a place one would expect to be hostile to renewables – but it’s also our nation’s largest producer of wind energy*.

Mapping the statewide resources of Pennsylvania onto an innovation schema is beyond the scope of this post, but GPRES is continuing to develop this community under the leadership of Mark King and Leslie Craigmyle with new meetups promoting Solarize Philadelphia and National Drive Electric Week. If you are in the Philadelphia region, join them here. Or just read our posts on our Facebook group. So far, the group has turned out to precisely what I had hoped: engineers, financial analysts, sustainability professionals from related fields like college-campus sustainability. With organizing help from Robin Xu and Thomas Flaherty, we’ve already hosted meetups on:

  • Electric Vehicles (with test drives!)
  • Solar home tour
  • Energy Retrofits as a Anti-Poverty Strategy
  • 350 Philadelphia’s clean-energy SEPTA campaign
  • The State of Sustainability in Higher Education
  • Clean Energy at the Democratic National Convention and the 2016 election

..And there is so much more to talk about!


*The Texas Renewable Portfolio Standard was originally created by Senate Bill 7 and signed by Governor Bush in 1999, which helped Texas eventually become the leading producer of wind powered electricity in the U.S. The RPS was part of new laws that restructured the electricity industry. The Texas RPS mandated that utility companies jointly create 2000 new MWs of renewable energy by 2009 based on their market share. In 2005, Senate Bill 20, increased the state’s RPS requirement to 5,880 MW by 2015, of which, 500 MW must come from non-wind resources. The bill set a goal of 10,000 MW of renewable energy capacity for 2025, which was achieved 15 years early, in 2010.