How has the demand for solar energy solutions grown over the last 10-15 years?
Demand has grown at a tremendous pace. Consider this: the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) indicates there are more than 22 gigawatts (gW) of solar power installed globally, and estimates that solar energy could provide for up to 12 percent of the European Union electricity demand by 2020.
What kinds of solutions are customers looking for?
Ultimately, customers are looking for solutions that provide a high level of performance and efficiency, are reliable, and quicken the rate of return on investment. So at Bonfiglioli, we focus on integrating several products into a single “smart system solution” that can control every aspect of energy generation – from solar panel movement, to grid supply. Benefits of this approach include heightened efficiency, improved reliability, low-maintenance productivity and efficient power point tracking, all of which is attractive to our customers.
Are there areas of the world that have seen explosive growth in solar technology/demand?
Far and away, European nations are leading the way in solar demand. Currently, Germany is setting the stage for solar demand; Germany boasts almost 10 GW of installed PV power, nearly one-third of which was just installed last year. Spain and Italy are following closely in Germany’s footsteps, thanks to feed-in tariffs (FITs) and other financial incentives. The United States is also experiencing tremendous growth – with a 40 percent jump in its solar power capacity in 2009 alone – especially in states such as California and Hawaii.
Where do you think the next demand growth will come from?
Germany and Italy may serve as the largest markets for solar PV for the time being, but as previously noted, the U.S. solar energy market is growing at a tremendous rate. Other markets that are poised for expansion and investment include Bulgaria, Greece and France in Europe; China, Korea and Japan in Asia; and Canada and Australia.
What are the difficulties/problems that must be overcome with regard to solar energy solutions?
One issue facing the solar energy industry is the uncertainty of how many countries will enact energy policies that rely on government subsidies and feed-in tariffs. While the feed-in tariff served as the original push behind PV, declining government support highlights how important it is that renewable energy markets, solar power in particular, operate independently of government support. For example, in 2007 Spain established an FIT that guaranteed fixed electricity rates for new solar projects installed by September 2008. The solar market was quickly flooded, which proved expensive for the Spanish government. With the need to cut rates, the Spanish government reduced its consumer-subsidized tariff for new plants and has limited new solar installations.
Another challenge lies in the ability for the world’s power grid to keep pace with the demand for clean sources of energy. There is a global movement toward increasing reliance on renewable energy sources, but the unpredictable nature of alternative energy sources will threaten the viability of renewable energy as a long-term power source; if, that is, a solution to address these inconsistencies isn’t developed. At Bonfiglioli, we are looking ahead to solutions that will meet the rising need, without compromising quality and consistency of power delivery.
Furthermore, there is still the global issue of grid parity, which the majority of countries have yet to reach. As with Hawaii and Italy, certain geographic areas will hit the desired price point more quickly because of abundant sunlight, high electric prices, or both.
How will these problems be overcome --- technology, demand, more subsidies or something else?
These challenges will be overcome via focused, collaborative partnerships between technology developers, energy utilities and financial incentives. Technology developers must work with customers and investors to develop solutions that hasten renewable energy’s return on investment, minimize downtime and maximize productivity – essentially, closing the gap between short-term thinking and long-term benefits and payoffs. Meanwhile, energy utilities must help overcome the challenges presented by the standardization, stabilization and integration of solar energy to the power grid. Finally, local, state and federal governments must be willing to provide some form of financial incentive – whether through subsidies, rebates or feed-in tariffs, as in Europe.
How does the U.S. market compare to the European market in terms of PV sales, technology, etc.?
The United States has not adopted a federal feed-in tariff, as many European counties have. The lack of federal feed-in tariffs means that U.S. adaption to solar energy has historically been slower than the European market. Despite a lack of federal tariffs, state and local incentives have played an influential role; states ranked with high cumulative PV capacities have typically issued financial incentives for entering the solar power market. For example, in California, a 10-year, $3 billion Go Solar campaign provides rebates and performance-based incentives. Looking to the future, it is expected that federal tax policies and stimulus spending will drive accelerated market growth.
Is the U.S. market still growing or has the economic downturn put the brakes on?
It is still growing, but at a diminished pace. The challenge is directly related to financing. Since there is no broad-based financial incentive for solar installations, investors, system integrators and other PV entrepreneurs must rely on the incentives offered by each state. Since all of the programs are different, it makes the process quite cumbersome, compared to FITs offered in Europe and now in Ontario, Canada. If you look at the countries with the fastest growth, you will find each of them had a FIT program that supported renewable energy. Renewable energy subsidies or government spending is no different than any other program in the United States; the difference is that it is visible and something which potentially reduces the funding of the other “not so public” programs for coal and oil.
What is next for solar energy? What is the next big thing? What are some trends you see developing?
As discussed earlier, energy storage systems are certainly an area of growth for the industry. Energy storage systems – composed of a series of inverters, batteries and a conditioning system – present a viable solution by bridging the gap between energy production and energy delivery. These systems absorb renewable energy as it is produced, then gradually transmit energy to the grid evenly over time. Doing so allows the grid to constantly and evenly receive energy when it has the most capacity to do so, even when solar fields aren’t operating.
Another trend we see developing, at least here in the U.S., is taking a more modular approach to inverter technology. One of our company’s highlighted items is the RPS450-TL, the industry’s first-ever integrated, modular solar power inverter system. The unit is a three-phase PV inverter that is intended for large solar power plants in the multi mW range. It can be configured with two to six inverter power modules, each rated 125kW or 150kW, to maximize the flexibility and meet customer requirements. The RPS450-TL offers distinct advantages over other forms of solar technology, including critical improvements to overall efficiency, energy harvesting and financial returns, which is why it has already been installed in some of the largest solar fields in Europe. We anticipate seeing domestic growth in this area over the course of the next year.
What do you think is important to understand when discussing PV solutions?
At Bonfiglioli, we think it’s important to understand the value that a PV solutions provider brings to the table. As a company with renewable energy engineering teams located throughout the world, the Bonfiglioli Group has a global perspective on the growth of solar energy demand… and, a series of global solutions that meet that demand. Since our company’s beginnings in 1956, Bonfiglioli has made significant financial, manpower and research investments into the renewable energy market. Because we’ve mastered technologies and products in other energy fields, we’re able to leverage those learnings in the solar industry
Schulte began with Bonfiglioli in 2002 as the National Sales Manager in the Mobile Solutions Division. In 2007, he became the Vice President of Sales before being promoted to president. Schulte’s sales and marketing expertise has led the company to achieve high sales growth in the Off-Highway OEM & Industrial Equipment markets taking revenue from $3.5 million to $74 million in just six years.
Schulte has more than 17 years of experience in the industry and holds a bachelor of science in business management from Ohio State University. Additionally, he is the winner of the Fast 55 Award for company growth in Greater Cincinnati area and was nominated for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2009 Award. For more information about Bonfiglioli, visit http://www.bonfiglioliusa.com/