Solar’s Time to Shine as SPI Kicks Off in Windy City


The tone was upbeat as Solar Power International kicked off in the Windy City on Monday this week. Speakers proclaimed that it’s solar’s time to shine, while cautioning that we must pull together to ensure the industry’s continued strength.


Speakers kicking off the 10th annual Solar Power International Monday proclaimed that it’s solar’s time to shine. Clearly glowing in the new attention being given to the Midwest with this conference of over 550 exhibitors and thousands of attendees, speakers from Illinois promised that host city Chicago would soon move from being known as the Windy City to sporting a new moniker, the Solar City.


As Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said, “No one should be left out when it comes to solar, including the Midwest.” He promised anyone visiting the governor’s mansion a chance to sleep in Abe Lincoln’s bed — “but only if you’re really committed to solar power.” On a more serious note, he pointed out that Illinois’ commitment to clean energy extends to a requirement for 25% renewables by 2025, with further legislation in the works. And Illinois has something very few states can boast: an article in the state constitution saying that everyone is entitled to a healthy environment, one that all residents must provide and maintain for current and future generations.


That upbeat start to the conference’s general session was followed by more optimism as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the stage. To a hearty round of applause, he announced the Chicago Solar Express, a streamlined residential solar permitting program that guarantees you a permit in just one day — as long as you get to the permit office in the morning. Streamlined commercial permitting is also on the way.


Rhone Resch, CEO of SEIA, expanded the conversation to the whole United States. While solar is growing by leaps and bounds, he said, to ensure its staying power we all need to mobilize now to protect it. That means protecting net metering and RPS, and extending the ITC. If we don’t get involved, he warned, we may lose ground to our critic and enemies. Prominent among these — in addition to the Koch brothers and the Heartland Institute — are utilities, which seem to be aligned in trying to dismantle net metering.


But with over 90% of Americans in favor of more solar, Resch said, utilities need to “start listening to their customers rather than to their shareholders.”


SEPA, on the other hand, represented by CEO Julia Hamm, considers utilities a critical part of the equation and believes that the solar industry must partner with them to succeed. That may not be a surprising statement from an organization half of whose membership is utilities. Still, Hamm acknowledged that utilities will need to step up to the plate too and become more nimble and responsive to markets. And solar companies, she believes, need to look at how solar can be a complete package, and to “become a bit more like a utility.”


But questions remain about whether either of these will happen. Can solar companies see utilities as potential business partners? And will utilities make the same kind of transition that we’ve seen in telecom?


Whatever happens, Hamm believes that 2013 will be remembered as the year solar came into its own. And the other speakers who opened SPI this year seemed to agree.


As Rahm Emanuel observed, it used to be that if you were pro-environment, you were anti-jobs — but that’s no longer true. Anyone seeing the flashy show and slick exhibition hall can confirm that solar is no longer just for hippies, either. To ensure that solar remains strong, Resch asked that attendees go to America Supports Solar and join the Solar Power Advocacy Network. He left us with these words from Henry Ford: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”