This Week in Solar

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With falling stock prices, bankruptcies, and a Chinese trade war grabbing more solar headlines than the positive strides the industry needs, sometimes those working and investing in the industry need a little "rah-rah" speech. They got it this week from the hottest speaker in the U.S. right now -- President Bill Clinton.

The former Commander-in-Chief gave the keynote address at Solar Power International this week and offered a rousing endorsement of solar power. He spoke of the need for shared cooperation and for the industry to communicate better with the public. "You just can't be deterred," he said. Those who follow solar closely already know about many of the things he mentioned, but sometimes we, too, need reassurance that we're not crazy and that our eyes aren't deceiving us when we see how much progress the industry has made.

Speaking of progress, here's just a snippet of the progress in the industry this week, much of it from the SPI conference.

New products galore
If there's a conference, there must be new products. Here are some of the highlights.

  • Suntech Power released a 72-cell module for the commercial and utility market based on its SuperPoly technology. The module has a slim frame design, which will lower storage and shipment costs and is 15.7% efficient.
  • ReneSola (NYSE: SOL  ) announced 300 W and 305 W high-efficiency modules that are also 72-cell designs.
  • Renesola also announced the Micro RePlus microinverter, which can be used as a standalone or integrated with ReneSola panels.
  • Canadian Solar announced the latest AC product in its line, called ResidentialAC. The company said it reduces the cost of system design and installation and delivers double-digit increases in solar-power production.
  • Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE  ) introduced a 72-cell module with a voltage rating of 1,000 volts. The module is designed for the utility scale market and will reduce balance-of-system costs by reducing wire runs and combiner boxes and also makes the system more efficient by reducing resistive losses.

Differentiated products are becoming more and more important for solar manufacturers, and we should expect to see the focus to remain on lowering balance-of-system costs by integrating more into the module and increasing efficiency.

Trina Solar changes course
One of the biggest question marks in the industry is around what Chinese solar companies will do in the future. They have too much capacity and debt, and they make little to no money on every module they sell.

Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL  ) has recognized this reality and said it will separate module production and systems businesses in a way to stay competitive. The changes will come along with operating-cost and headcount reductions.

The company was short on specifics about its plans, but we can take away that management doesn't see the module business improving quickly. Management is looking for partners to expand into systems, energy storage, and other parts of the supply chain.

This isn't a new strategy in solar. First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) and SunPower diversified into systems years ago and have kept themselves afloat by leaning on large system developments. I'm not sure if Trina Solar will be able to diversify with the same success, but it's a good strategic move, considering the losses taking place in Chinese module manufacturing.

A whiff of on-site storage
The next big step for solar power is to be able to integrate energy storage so systems can eliminate peaks and valleys of power production and be able to power a home or business all night. Hanwha SolarOne (Nasdaq: HSOL  ) announced that it will partner with Silent Power to develop and build solar systems with energy store integrated.

This is the next wave in solar power, and I would expect more energy storage announcements in the future.

Foolish bottom line
There are a lot of advancements happening every week, so check back often for what it means to solar investors. And be sure to check out our premium report on First Solar, one of the market's leaders. We've highlighted a lot of interesting trends in the industry and laid out the investment case for First Solar. Find out more.

Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of SunPower and manages and account that does as well. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings, or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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