Thursday, August 31, 2017

Alfidi Capital at Intersolar ees SEMICON West 2017

I attended the mighty tripartite conference of Intersolar North America, ees North America, and SEMICON West 2017 at San Francisco's Moscone Center. The south hall of the convention center is undergoing a massive renovation, so the SEMICON folks had to cram into the west building with Intersolar. The reduced expo floor area was tolerable given the action-packed schedule. It's action-packed from my perspective, because I love sitting through long seminars and briefings that lesser mortals lack the fortitude to endure.

The Intersolar opening ceremony is always the first shin-dig on my calendar for this colossal conference. The main Intersolar conference has lots of finance seminars on the first day but I am too cheap to pay. These people had better invite me to speak someday. Anyway, CALSEIA and NREL celebrate their 40th anniversaries this year. I did not see any cake but that's okay, we all need to stick to our diets. Expect to hear more about behind-the-meter consumer-driven storage, because that's the industry term for how building owners are installing their own systems on-site. Everything in capitalism is of course consumer-driven, but the twist in renewable energy is that smaller storage systems give customers a lot more options than utilities have ever provided before. I wanted to hear from California politicians about how the state's proposed Energy Storage Initiative would affect the market but the usual big shots were not on hand. Maybe our mayor and governor had something better to do than promote solar energy, one of the Golden State's biggest growth industries.

It's the Alfidi Capital badge for Intersolar, ees, and SEMICON West 2017.

The opening ceremony left me with more questions than usual. Do solar energy companies really have thin profit margins (compared to, say, fossil fuel energy generators)? If PV costs keep dropping and PV panel volume GW installation keeps rising, why would solar companies have thinner margins than the broader energy sector? Will the solar sector shrink if the federal government cuts spending on solar R+D? If the energy grid evolves past net-metering to accommodate location-based price signals, will this drive demand for beacons and other IoT devices in the grid? Can blockchain tech really enable both on-grid energy trading and PPA investments? I mulled these questions while I was chomping on free food after the opening ceremony. They served roast beef this year, a step up from the usual turkey.

The SEMICON West welcome keynotes and opening ceremonies were next on my hit list. The hits just keep on coming. The assumed CAGR of 5-7% for the semiconductor sector through 2057 is a long forecast, but it seems reasonable if IoT adds to a mature sector. Anyone who thinks IoT won't drive the next wave of semiconductor volume growth needs to read everything I've ever blogged about both IoT and semiconductors. I keep hearing predictions about AI making the singularity either a decade or two away, but there's no consensus among gurus. We all get to learn some new buzz phrases: edge computing (now with IoT and AR/VR) and fog computing (I've heard that one before). The progression goes from edge to fog to cloud, and into your brain at some point once we hit that singularity. One brilliant executive shared his insights into "Neumann and Neuromorphic" innovation to create intelligence that reminded me of Transhumanism.

I came away from SEMICON's opening presentations with a few original insights. I would post them on SemiWiki but I don't work in the sector. I think that when gross payroll grows faster than headcount at semiconductor enterprises funded as public/private partnerships, it shows the creation of high-income, value-added jobs. The semiconductor sector now uses more elements of the periodic table than ever, so materials sourcing will soon become a crucial "table stakes" factor. The entire tech sector needs to take supply chain security seriously, and that means not taking single sources in the developing world for granted, especially if those sources rely upon transportation links that will be at risk during geopolitical instability. Check out the South China Sea tensions for a glimpse of near-term supply chain insecurity.

The ees people gave us a look at their market, regulatory environment, and some business policies. I would like them to explain why they don't capitalize themselves as EES, but I don't run their part of the show. It's their world of batteries and I just live in it. There should be little concern about backsliding if one speaker is correct about state governments doing 80% of the policy work in renewable energy. I just wonder how they measure that impact, and whether the remaining 20% is crucial stuff like the DOE SunShot Initiative. There is no policy initiative imaginable that will force solar power into the baseload category, because it is physically impossible for the sun to shine at night. Policies favoring storage linked to solar and wind power do not change nature. Power grid management with distributed storage will require revisions to the standard installed capacity (ICAP) the ISOs calculate for their markets. Adding BIPV and and other new tech to generation reduces the ICAP demand-related charges, thus adding value to a property owner's business model.

I want to throw some more red meat buzzwords out there to show the ees people that I paid attention. Electric energy storage used for load leveling is "energy arbitrage," using time shifting to make stored energy available during higher demand periods. Its corollary is "peak shaving," encouraging reduced energy consumption during high-demand periods. California and New York are among the states pushing "distributed resource tariffs" that enable utilities to install more generating capacity on their customers' sites. Virtual power plants will aggregate these distributed generation resources into a cloud-based management model. Anyone making or selling distributed generation or storage solutions must know the NERC critical infrastructure protection (CIP) standards and FERC guidance for CIP implementation. The US Midwest's wind corridor is an underserved market for storage solutions and grid connectivity. Cogeneration (CHP) and trigeneration (CCHP) present a wide array of product choices that storage solutions vendors can adapt into sales pitches.

The ees finance and bankability sessions built on the above policy topics. Vendors who get on a project finance company's pre-approved list of trustworthy service providers have a big leg up in getting customer referrals. Refer to my blog articles on previous Intersolar conferences for PACE explanations, and know that PACE applies to both residential (RPACE) and commercial (CPACE) properties. Storage systems with a useful life less than the typical PACE payback period are probably not worth selling. The bottom line from banks authorizing loans and leases for energy products is a provable revenue stream; no stream means the project developer must seek equity investors rather than issuing debt. Energy storage is now considered a "front of meter" function requiring new metrics for assessing charges, compared to "behind the meter" generation's demand charges.

One dude from a leading semiconductor equipment supplier had a free e-book for those of us attending his talk. I didn't sign up for his e-book because I have way too much stuff to read through already. Early concern among SEMI manufacturers that Moore's Law would stop at one micron no longer applies. He shared a few platitudes on good management and organizational culture. The dude needs to go work at Uber where those factors are deficient. SEMI held their annual awards presentation afterwards and someone mentioned the Hybrid Memory Cube Consortium pushing the next big thing in DRAM design. I'll have more to say about that consortium if they have events offering free food.

The SEMICON keynotes tend to be slick sales pitches from major sponsors, but once in a while some worthy tidbits appear. Leading IoT and cloud providers have latched onto autonomous vehicles as their next big cash cow target because those cars generate continuous large data streams. Expect services and advertising focused on consumers sitting passively in self-driving cars for hours. I expect these cars to converge with the sharing economy, whose consumers are too poor to own their own cars. Most ads they will see will probably be for other sharing services, like grocery coupons. You heard it here first at Alfidi Capital.

I went back to the ees stage to see what tech advancements are maximizing ROI. Track the GTM US Energy Storage Monitor for the latest industry developments. I mentioned peak shaving above, and storage capacity determines its flexibility. The industry claims that storage manufacturing costs have fallen in recent years, similar to PV manufacturers' cost trajectories, as delivered units have risen. Utility tariff structures and time of use (TOU) policies determine use cases that demonstrate demand charge management that storage system vendors can offer. Most states allow net metering of solar but not storage, so using storage means time shifting, peak shaving, and load balancing to manage power costs. Residential HVAC activation and EV charging are primary drivers of daily household power use spikes. It is clear to me that distributed generation and storage will severely threaten the business models of utilities that do not rapidly move to adapt. Utilities that survive should evolve to finance, install, and manage residential generation and storage, just to capture part of those revenue streams.

I enjoyed attending the Intersolar Orange Button Software Launch, and not just because they had free coffee. The SunSpec Alliance Open Solar Data Exchange (SunSpec oSDX) sponsored the launch because it is part of DOE's Orange Button initiative for standardizing solar bankability data. Getting Alfidi Capital into this program is a bonanza for name recognition. I don't offer financing or provide any other client services to program participants. My interests include knowing which tools programmers must use to be compatible with Orange Button APIs.

The SEMICON West Bulls and Bears Industry Outlook was something I could not miss. I would be perfectly willing to present my own sector views at this forum someday. I just don't want other analysts stealing my work. Gartner and other research purveyors still forecast semiconductor sector growth. There's a widespread expectation that IoT will be part of that growth; you know, maybe these analysts have been stealing that insight from me since I've blogged it for years. I believe the IoT automotive apps driving chip demand are also enabling other value-adding services like fleet management and stolen vehicle recovery (tied to insurance coverage). The semiconductor content in AI is hard to predict, with analysts uncertain about higher CAGR forecasts, and they have no idea which processing architecture will win AI. Hey analysts, I'll do you a favor and point you in the direction of the Hybrid Memory Cube Consortium I mentioned above. Now that I've said it, I will fight any lazy analysts who try to steal it. Fighting begins at a time and place of my choosing.

The last major conference event for me was the Joint Forces for Solar 16th PV Briefing. I learned a ton of stuff at past events thank to heavy participation from industry association leaders and DOE subject matter experts. This year was disappointing due to their absence. The solar market's dynamics show tons of solar installed here in California, not including municipal utilities. I asked a question about how geospatial analysis tools would be good sales prospect generators for installers, especially when used together with Orange Button financing data. Whoever answered me said that utilities are indeed building such tools to show customers where they can install distributed generation assets. I thus contributed some massive genius to the briefing that day. One final insight I gleaned from a presenter is that good accountants specializing in solar policies and incentives can add value to business customers installing large energy assets through off-balance sheet financing.

I did prowl all of the expo floors but I did not have time to query enough exhibitors on their business pain points. I did score an armload of free reading material, a handful of free candy, and a brain dump of interactive tech experiences. I even met a local steampunk enthusiast working for one of the exhibitors. Those folks must be all over the tech sector. They go into hibernation when they're not at the Maker Faire or big hackathons.

Intersolar and SEMICON West are always winners for me. I also like ees, and I would like them even more if they adopt proper capitalization. I shall return next year to see if that happens.