Solar industry companies from around the nation will gather in Mesa Wednesday for a solar conference that highlights the growing interest in alternative energy as the rest of the economy sinks.
The AEE Solar Dealer Conference Feb. 18-21 at the Hilton Phoenix East Hotel in Mesa will bring together solar equipment manufacturers with dealers that design and install solar systems in an education conference presented by a California-based wholesale distributor of photovoltaic gear, which turns sunlight into electric current.
Representatives of about 450 companies are expected to attend, up from 300 last year, and another 30 makers of solar equipment will exhibit their products.
Jeff Spies, training and trade show manager for AEE Solar, said he chose Mesa as the site for the conference to advance Arizona’s efforts to become a major solar industry center.
Spies, who works out of a sales office in the Valley, said the solar industry still has a long way to go in Arizona, but it’s gaining a foothold.
“I had an opportunity to decide where to have this conference, so I said 'let’s have it in Phoenix in February. You can’t beat that,’” he said. “But a subconscious motive is to help build the industry in my home state.”
Spies said the increased attendance reflects an increased interest in entering the photovoltaic industry among electrical and other contractors whose business has been hammered by the recession.
“It’s a field that requires a lot of education,” he said. “Electrical contracting is the best background. We’re seeing roofing companies too, and general contractors.”
Spies said even some home theater installers are getting into the field.
“That’s OK, as long as you’re familiar with running wiring. You also have to deal with permitting, insurance, how to deal with inspectors. There are a lot of aspects involved in it.”
It also helps if the would-be solar contractor has an environmental ethic, he said.
“Some people see solar as being something for hippies,” he said. “But you need to have an environmental consideration, because that’s probably your customer’s perspective.”
Nichole Koontz, president of EnergyPro, a Gold Canyon-based company, who will be one of the attendees, said she was attracted to the industry by the both its environmental benefits and the need to reduce our dependence on foreign energy.
“I like being part of that movement,” she said.
Koontz came at the business from a different angle: she was an engineer in the semiconductor industry for 14 years.
“I saw the photovoltaic industry grow and the similarity between the semiconductor and photovoltaic technologies,” she said.
“About a year and a half ago, I decided to jump into the photovoltaic industry. I partnered with a general contractor ... and we spun off a new company from his construction company. We combined my engineering background with the ability to install and manage these projects.”
Growth has not been as rapid as she anticipated, she said, because photovoltaic systems are still a big investment for homeowners and businesses, even with tax and utility incentives.
“What we have to do is educate people and have them understand the economics of owning solar,” she said.
Still, she said her company enjoyed a wave of contracts in January, when more generous federal tax incentives went into effect.
Shawn Colomer, local sales and leasing agent for Eco-Sun-Wind, a Walnut Creek, Calif.-based company that makes mobile solar generators to produce electricity in remote locations, said the credit crunch has put a dent in the solar business. But interest remains high, he said.
“Alternative energy is definitely something we will have to tackle,” he said. “You can’t keep your head in the sand ... If more people do it, the costs will come down.”