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World Comes to Denver for ASES/WREF Conference

By Solar Oregon Board Member Doug Boleyn

Delegates from across the globe came to Denver last week for the World Renewable Energy Forum (WREF) which included the 2012 American Solar Energy Society Annual Conference. It was a busy week in Denver that also brought the Developing Unconventional Oil (DUO) Conference held at the same time – at the same Denver Convention Center! Small groups of protesters gathered at the main door of the Convention Center from time to time throughout the week to protest “fracking.”


No protests were going on inside the ASES part of the Conference Hall, however, where the ASES/WREF Conference brought together the latest information in the world of solar energy as well as inspirational speakers each morning. Among the most outstanding were Dr. Stephen Chu, Secretary of Energy, who brought the attendees up to speed on current greenhouse gas levels, solar development, and job creation. Bruce Oreck, the ambassador to Finland, who’s coordinating “greening” US embassies around the world, was particularly moving. Oreck’s talk was about the language we use and how we don’t need a solar revolution (it’s already happening), we need a revolution in how we talk about solar and the other energy resources (“Don’t call oil, Big Oil – because in American’s minds, Big means better!” and “the Solar technologies are already here, we just need to tell people how to use them.”)


With 12 to 14 concurrent sessions occurring all the time, decisions to go to which one were difficult. That fact and that the individual presentation titles were not listed in the printed program (you had to use your portable communication device or laptop to get that!) made for confusing navigation to the right sessions.


Key themes this year: Solar is about clean energy, energy security, and economic development, not just about global warming mitigation. Solar and other renewables were dealt with in a number of sessions on a utility scale, as opposed to individual home or building scale. Many sessions covered solar radiation variability, wind variability, and how far renewables could go to integrate into the utility grid system. There was a lot of focus on utility scale issues (renewable integration, managing intermittent resources, wind and solar day-ahead predictive methods).  


As usual, in numerous sessions, buildings (still the largest component of energy and carbon!) of all kinds were simulated, modeled, studied, sliced and diced, the result being that there are many pathways to “net zero” or close to it. Passiv Haus was compared with traditional passive solar style houses, and it comes down to a matter of choice and taste (comfort and energy consumption are close!). [For this reporter, the question now is not “can you build a net zero energy home?” but rather “What kind of net zero energy home would you like?”]


One particular attention-grabbing study will be released shortly (June, 2012) by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), in which it has studied the US electricity grid, and utility predictions for the next decades, and concludes that renewable energy can competitively provide 80% of the US electricity estimated to be required in 2050. The study was based on detailed hourly simulation modeling; renewable technologies included in the Study were only technologies commercially available today!


Heavily represented again in Denver was the contingent from University of Oregon, presenting papers ranging from solar resource details and characterization (Frank Vignola), through building design and modeling (John Reynolds, GZ Brown, Ihad Elzeyadi), and onto sunspaces and net zero energy buildings (Alison Kwok, Alexandra Rempel). Also contributing extensively at the conference, and a huge presence were the scientists from NREL, just “down the road” in Boulder, CO.


The Exhibits area seemed to be much smaller than in previous years; many booths were empty. There was notable representation from data monitoring and display systems, but out of all the solar PV manufacturers only a handful of the usual suspects showed up. [I think SPI in the Fall and Intersolar (July in San Francisco) are becoming the big venues for large business to business solar transactions: the ASES conferences don’t bring out many “buyers,” just “learners.”]


Solar water heating systems were well represented at the Exhibit Hall, but as I asked the question, “what’s new, improved, or lower cost about your system?” there was not much they could say. Based on the solar water heating (SWH) technical sessions and the equipment on the exhibit floor, the SWH industry is still populated with aging techies, and  in need of innovative marketing or “packaging” creativity that could lead to excitement and a subsequent uptick in sales. A report comparing US, Israeli, and Chinese solar water heating systems revealed what different features cause the huge price differential (US: $6,000 to $10,000; Israel: $1,000 to $1,800; China: $300 to $1,000). The authors allowed that getting to lower cost systems (they believed that $1000-$3,000 is necessary to be competitive) may be possible, but not without modifying our expectations.


The most represented “technology” on the exhibit hall floor seemed to be mounting and flashing systems. For the first time, I saw a non-metallic (fiberglass) mounting system for flat roofs. Lightweight, low cost, and easy to install on large areas, which provides labor saving advantages, critical in this day and age when on-site installation labor is becoming the largest cost component of installations as module prices decrease.


All in all, there was a lot to see and learn. More details on some of the innovative ideas will come as the proceedings and presentations get sent to all the attendees. Stay tuned!


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