PV Hipsters: Organizing solar events in markets “before they were cool”

As part of our anniversary year, we're looking back at 15 years of Solarplaza history. In this piece, we highlight 3 markets we've been active in since the early days: brief portraits of the Spanish, Italian and Dutch PV markets throughout the years.

In light of our 15th anniversary this year, we’re looking back on some of the pages in the history book of Solarplaza. Although 15 years might sound like a relatively short time, one could argue that it actually corresponds to a substantial amount of experience when placed in the context of the still-so-young PV industry. Consider them dog years. As we’ve grown up together with the acceleration of the industry we aim to support, we’ve seen markets boom and go bust and have seen others slowly inch towards sustainable growth. We’ve witnessed the successful growth stories of the current industry giants, but have also seen high-flying companies crash and burn. 

To illustrate those developments, we’re looking back on a few of the earliest solar markets we’ve been active in and considered how these markets - and our involvement in them - have developed since our first entry. The markets we’ll highlight are Spain, Italy and The Netherlands, our home since 2004. 

Spain

Quick stats
First event Solarplaza organized there: PV Business Tour Spain (2005)
Returns: 6 events in 2006, 2007, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2019

Outside of Germany (arguably the birthplace of European solar), Spain was one of the first markets in Europe to accelerate at an incredible speed. Especially for that time. The market sizes now seem almost insignificant and are dwarfed by a mere block of a modern PV plant, but the 10 MW that was realized in 2004 and the expectations of 40% of growth and 13-20 MW of new additions were monumental back then. Edwin, Solarplaza’s founder & CEO, wrote up a report on this budding market and recognized its great potential. The governmental targets published back then were to install 135 MW cumulative PV power by 2010, of which 115 MW was to be grid-connected and 20 MW would be made up by off-grid PV systems.
Around that time, the leading company in the ground-based market segment (ground-based PV systems; ‘Huertas Solares’) was Aesol. This company, which was 70% owned by Renewable Energy developer EHN - made its mark by developing 5 MWp of ‘PV plantations’ in Navarra.
Another ‘major’ player was Ecotècnia, which realized 72 installations of 6.0 kWp in the town of Cabanillas in Navarra (2004). All peanuts in a modern context, but highly significant back then. 
Soon after, however, the country’s now-familiar renewables giants would rise to fame; companies like Abengoa, Fotowatio and the local subsidiary of Enel. They were well in place when the true boom of the Spanish market kicked in. Warming up with 512 MW of installations in 2007, the market skyrocketed to 2,718 MW of additions in 2008. Rigorous policy changes then put a complete stop to the market in 2009 (44 MW of installations). A short-lived after wave of installations still occurred between 2010 and 2013, but then it got awfully quiet in Spain. 

Now, as solar market parity status is spreading across Europe’s traditional solar markets, Spain has awoken and is clawing its way back to becoming a GW-scale market, with many large PPA-based and merchant-structured solar plants in its pipeline. 

I was close to calling it off, when - in the nick of time - the signature came in for the sixth registration, the minimum threshold. Would it not have been for that one signature, Solarplaza might not have lived past 2005.

Solarplaza’s presence in the Spanish market more or less followed these trends. Our very first event in 2004 was a trade mission to Spain. Based on his findings in the report, Edwin envisioned the value of taking a group of European investors and developers to Spain, to meet with local parties, establish connections and explore the market potential on the ground. By no means was this an easy one to pull off though. Edwin: “This was Solarplaza’s very first event. I was always keeping my ears open for noises from the fax machine, hoping that registrations would come in. I was close to calling it off, when - in the nick of time - the signature came in for the sixth registration, the minimum threshold. Would it not have been for that one signature, Solarplaza might not have lived past 2005.”

So the event took place and the value of such a trade mission was recognized. A second mission, with a bigger group, was organized in 2006 and was followed up by an investment tour in the summer of 2007 and a dedicated conference later that same year, all on the brink of the boom. But after the boom came the bust, and the potential for our contributions diminished. We still hosted our Global Demand Conference series there in 2008 and 2010, but these were more focused on providing a global update on markets at the backdrop of the PVSEC exhibition. 

This year, however, with the renaissance of the Spanish market, we finally saw a proper opportunity to return to the birthplace of Solarplaza events. The Solar Market Parity Spain conference in March 2019 was a successful re-entry in a market that’s now set for sustainable, unsubsidized, growth. We’ll return to Madrid in March 2020 for the second edition of this conference, gathering 250+ PV professionals to together map out the realization of Spain’s ambitious renewable energy targets. 

Italy

Quick stats
First event Solarplaza organized there: PV Business Tour Italy-Greece (2007)
Returns: 14 events in 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2018, 2019

The rise (and fall) of the Italian market followed a similar pattern as Spain’s. Similarly, our activities in Italy also mirrored those in Spain. Here as well, it all started with the writing of a market report by Edwin. This document from 2006 reported the total installed PV capacity in Italy by the end of 2015 to be 36 MWp. The country also had a modest production industry, boasting 20 MWp of module production capacity, out of which 25% was used domestically and 75% was exported to other European markets. At that time, the government had set a 1 GW target for 2015, allowing itself a decade to reach that milestone. They probably could not have believed that Italy was to exceed 20 GW of solar capacity by the end of 2018, covering 7.9% of electricity demand. 

In those early days, who were the market pioneers? Some of these companies have sunk into oblivion, while others kept up with the pace and are still around today. Who remembers, for example, RED2002, the Italian system integrator that was founded in 2001 and was a big player in the early days? Another important player was the (now-bankrupt) German module manufacturer SOLON, which acquired Italian module manufacturer and distributor S.E. Project S.r.l. to get a foothold in the market. Others fared better. Energy utility Enel entered the game relatively quickly, as it was already involved in some of the early-stage PV projects. Some of the other bigger players were companies like Elettro Sannio S.n.c., Elettronica Santerno, Eta Florence, Gechelin Group, EniTecnologie, Ecostream, Solarex, Tecnospot and Enerpoint. The last one was founded by a great friend of Solarplaza, Paolo Viscontini, and is still operating in Italy. At present, the market is dominated by companies like EF Solare Italia, RTR, and of course Enel Green Power.

With the help of some other participants, we collected his belongings and put them in a suitcase within 3 minutes. By the time he realized what was going on, he was already on a plane to Italy.

Our first entry into the Italian market was the visit to Rome during the PV Business Tour Italy - Greece, in March 2007. The tour started in Greece for two days of workshops and networking and continued in Italy, with meetings and workshops. Back then, the driving force and our core partner was the Italian Association GIFI. Paolo Rocco Viscontini and Federico Brucciani stood at the helm of the association. Now, both are related to Italia Solare, which remains a close partner in our Italian conferences.
The interesting thing with these trade missions, which also make them so valuable for relationship-building, is the combination of high-level meetings and informal networking. That last bit could sometimes also present some minor logistical challenges.
Edwin: “A funny anecdote is that we were about to leave our hotel in Athens and had to hurry to the airport to make our flight to Rome, with the international group of 24 people. We did a headcount in the bus and realized one participant was missing. We were able to locate him and wake him up in his hotel room, where he was sleeping very well after having enjoyed Athens’ nightlife. With the help of some other participants, we collected his belongings and put them in a suitcase within 3 minutes. By the time he realized what was going on, he was already on a plane to Italy.”

After this initial visit, we’ve always kept a steady presence in the Italian solar market. We returned with a fully Italy-focused investment event in 2008 and two market-oriented ‘The Solar Future Italy’ conferences in 2011 and 2012. However, just like what happened in Spain, the Italian market entered a period of slowdown in the early 2010s. Shifting focus away from a purely locally-oriented market conference, we then chose Milan as the setting for several European regional conferences. In that capacity, it became the scene for the foundation and development of our now globally-established ‘Solar Asset Management’ conferences. We also hosted an event on energy storage there, as well as the first edition of Solar Market Parity Europe. That specific topic, first touched upon in 2018, has been the driving force behind not just the renaissance of the Spanish market, but also the re-emergence of Italy on the European stage. Therefore the regional event was followed up with our first event fully dedicated to the Italian market since 2012: Solar Market Parity Italy, which took place in June 2019. As the Italian market will only continue to grow over the coming years, we will host a follow-up in 2020 and - hopefully - more editions in the years to come. 

The Netherlands

Quick stats
First event Solarplaza organized there: The Solar Future NL (2008)
Returns: 17 events in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2018, 2018, 2018, 2019, 2019, 2019

Last, but certainly not least, in this overview is our home market, The Netherlands. Apart from being the basis of our operation, it’s also the location of our longest-running event and a testing ground for many other topics. 
In 2009, at the time of our first event in The Netherlands, the Dutch market featured just 69 MW of cumulative installed capacity and added a mere 10 MW over the course of the year. Now, ten years later, the Dutch market is the third-fastest growing market in Europe, behind Spain and France. After topping the GW-mark of annual installations last year with 1.4 GW of additions, expectations dictate that The Netherlands will add more than 2 GW of new solar PV capacity in 2019. That would bring the country to around 6.4 GW of cumulative installed solar PV capacity. 

In the early days of Dutch solar, Ecostream, part of Econcern, was one of the largest PV system suppliers in The Netherlands. However, Econcern, along with its consultancy branch Ecofys, filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Another market leader was Oskomera Solar, a developer that had been founded by Dennis Gieselaar, who had been Edwin’s very first hire at his consultancy company Ekomation, prior to founding Solarplaza. 
These days, the major stakeholders are relatively new faces to the market, like Groenleven, Greenchoice (Kieszon), ENECO, Sunrock and an increasing number of international companies, like Solarcentury and BayWa r.e.

The first edition of TSFNL started as an idea generated while washing the dishes in our small office. In 2009, the Dutch PV market was still completely ‘dead’, with less than 10 MW of annually-installed capacity. There seemed to be no reason to organize a PV conference at that time in NL...

Why did we organize that first edition in a year in which the market was only adding 10 MW of capacity? Edwin: “The first edition of TSFNL started as an idea generated while washing the dishes in our small office. In 2009, the Dutch PV market was still completely ‘dead’, with less than 10 MW of annually-installed capacity. There seemed to be no reason to organize a PV conference at that time in NL. Nevertheless, during the several international trips of Solarplaza, I had met with Dutch entrepreneurs and business people that were involved with, or leading, companies related to PV in other markets. The idea came up: if we believe that someday solar will also really take off in The Netherlands, let’s showcase what Dutch PV entrepreneurs are doing abroad and put those Dutch PV believers who see a bright future ahead on stage.That is why we called it “The Solar Future”. We managed to bring them over and, without a real domestic market, a surprisingly high number of people (>150) attended the conference; a huge success for us at the time. From then on, we’ve organized our The Solar Future NL conference on a yearly basis, which grew into the major Dutch platform for all PV stakeholders, with over 330 participants in the 11th edition that took place this year.”

Over the course of the ten years of organizing this event, we’ve seen the Dutch market bud, blossom, grow and establish itself as a mature market. To pour a regular dosage of inspiration into this market we’ve hosted a number of international PV experts and visionaries at the event. Those included the likes of Hermann Scheer - the founding father of the German photovoltaic industry, Jeremy Rifkin - the visionary economist prophesizing the third industrial revolution, Danny Kennedy - the solar start-up expert from Silicon Valley, Michael Liebreich - founder of BNEF, as well as home-grown space heroes Wubbo Ockels and André Kuipers. We’ve always sought the dialogue with politicians, aiming to push for better governmental support and ambitions, and have thus hosted two (former) prime ministers, as well as a number of cabinet representatives. But, most of all, we’ve let the experienced market players and analysts do the talking. By gathering and connecting the bright minds of the Dutch PV industry, we’ve done our best to contribute to the acceleration of the Dutch solar market, which is all paying off now, big time. We’re excited for the 2020 edition, the 12th consecutive installment, of The Solar Future NL to again take stock of what’s happening in the unleashed Dutch PV market.

Apart from these Dutch-oriented market conferences, The Netherlands has also been our playground for exploring other new topics. We’ve organized two editions of an event focused on blockchain applications in the energy industry and hosted a number of intimate “lab” sessions on micro-grids, energy storage and floating solar. That last topic was met with such enthusiasm, that we followed it up with a full event dedicated to floating solar, which took place just this month. Lastly, Amsterdam has also been the birthplace of the ‘Making Solar Bankable’ conferences, the globally-focused platform we’ve been facilitating together with Dutch development bank FMO, to explore and connect project development and financing for solar projects in emerging markets. This major event, gathering over 600 developers, investors and other PV professionals, will be back for its third edition in February 2020

Spain, Italy and The Netherlands. These are just 3 out of the 39 markets we’ve been active in over the course of our 15 years of existence. There’s a treasure of stories, developments and anecdotes I could tell you about any of those 36 other countries, but let’s save those for the next time we meet at one of our many upcoming events across the globe. All we can hope and aim for, is to continue and increase our efforts towards connecting people, facilitating knowledge-sharing and accelerating solar markets around the world. This will continue to be the core mission and objective of Solarplaza for another 15 years to come and far beyond.

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