Straight talk from Oregon's Future Energy Conference
By Dexter Gauntlett, Pike Research
Dexter Gauntlett is a Portland-based research analyst with Pike Research.
While you might associate Portland with a high per-capita ratio of microbreweries, strip clubs, and raindrops — Stumptown is also home to a disproportionately high percentage of energy nerds.
Last week, Portland hosted the fifth annual Future Energy Conference which provided a glimpse into a number of important current events in the cleantech space — which is approaching another critical juncture.
Here are some of the most intriguing highlights. In my view they capture the increasing sophistication and maturity of the cleantech industry.
• Puon Penn, senior vice president and head of national cleantech and emerging tech markets for Wells Fargo Bank is one of the top financiers of solar and wind in the U.S. and a straight shooter. He called out the country’s tax-credit incentive system for renewables as not nearly as efficient as a feed-in tariff. Penn said — in only partial jest — that the current system mostly benefits lawyers and accountants.
• This is a point that the venerable feed-in tariff crusader Paul Gipe has made for more than a decade. In Portland, Gipe hit on the concept of solar democratization and presented an inspiring summary of the role small German communities have played to accelerate the deployment of renewables, where in some cases individuals have installed more solar than the entire state of Oregon.
• Even though Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America, was billed as the keynote speaker on the first day of the conference, he sent Ben Santarris, head of corporate communications and sustainability instead. It was probably expected to be a sympathetic crowd to SolarWorld's trade case against China. Although Santarris received a round of applause after making the company's case, in talks with those in attendance over the next two days, I found that few showed real sympathy. The word among solar PV installers at the event that I spoke with was that their customers cite the trade case — and regularly go as far as requesting two bids, one with Chinese panels and one with SolarWorld panels. But at the end of the day, they almost never go with the more expensive — SolarWorld — option, even when Chinese panels are only 10 percent less expensive. Santarris appeared to try to make this a national security issue, and in an (I would say overly) dramatic tone pointed out, “Chinese solar panels are on the roofs of U.S. military buildings!” (Yeah, and inside are Chinese-made flatscreens.)
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