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Energy Richard Perez
After the day's work was done at the recent Solar Technology Institute PV seminars, we'd gather
at the local pub for food, brew, and mostly for talk. These BS sessions turned out some incredibly fruitful information. The best of the lot concerned the business aspects of renewable energy. Everyone saw an industry emerging from infancy. Everyone wondered where the opportunities were for immediate and meaningful work.
In days gone by
A renewable energy (RE) industry was a dream ten years ago. A dream kept alive by the dedication of Mom & Pop Solar Companies, a few rural systems, and a hopelessly hi-tech scientific establishment. The RE products performed poorly or not at all. Everything was far too expensive. The watchword was, "The energy of the future..."
Well, much has changed in ten years. Products have developed from expensive curiosities into cost-effective alternatives to nonrenewable energy sources. We learned much from ten years of applying these systems. We have high-efficiency devices like inverters, power point trackers, and controls. We have long-lived batteries, and super-efficient appliances. Each small breakthrough by itself may seem trivial, but the sum of all these small victories has given us working, reliable, and affordable RE systems. We have the technology to make renewable energy work today. The tech level of the RE industry reached critical mass about five years ago with the development of the 90%+ efficient inverter.
It was the grass-roots users who put it all together into workable, affordable systems. Each manufacturer, designer, and dealer saw only part of the picture. It took some thirty to fifty thousand users to really find out what worked and what didn't. Over time a dream became a real industry. Mom & Pop Solar grew. They grew from one partner working out to support the dream into having several employees.
The RE Biz Scene Now
There are now somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand nongrid connected renewable energy systems inside the USA. New systems are growing 30% annually. This means around ten thousand new, nongrid connected, RE systems next year. Next year's system buyers will spend over seventy million dollars on RE equipment and services. Sounds like a market looking for an industry to me. Once again, the users are light years ahead of the industry that supplies them.
There are three major reasons why people buy and use home-sized RE systems: they are located an unaffordable distance from the utility grid, they don't like how the utility makes the power, or they want the self-sufficiency offered by an RE system. The best deals in country real estate are located beyond the end of the power lines. This fact alone has driven incredible expansion in RE businesses located on the U.S. west coast. People are objecting to the fossil and nuclear fuels (and their inevitable pollutions) used by the utilities. Concern for our environment is an increasingly popular reason for using renewable energy. Electric power has become essential in our lives and the idea of owning a renewable source is irresistible.
Market demand and technology have produced an industry serving RE users. It may be as small an item as a PV-powered walk light, to a mega system for telecommunications, to a fully electrified country home. The market is as diverse as the individual who use the power and their appliances.
This industry contains both old and new companies. Some folks have been in the biz as long as twenty years now. Others have started up this year. Our "in the RE business" database at Home Power shows 867 businesses now active in renewable energy. The industry can be broken down into four types of businesses: original equipment manufacturers (OEM), distributors, dealers, and service businesses. Let's look at each in turn and see where the opportunities lie.
Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM)
These folks make the equipment we use in our RE systems. The list of equipment is long: PV modules,
36 Home Power #26 • December 1991 / January 1992
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