If you attended the 2008 annual Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) conference in San Diego– put on in partnership with the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) – you had to be astounded at the size, the international presence, the skillful organization of the event. Some 23,000 people showed up, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke to a packed house on opening night, live interviews with solar newsmakers were featured on the website throughout the conference, and 422 exhibitors dazzled us with displays of the latest technological advances in hardware, software, and other supporting solar industries. Even the name of the conference, now called Solar Power International, reflects its growth and expansion.
Julia Hamm, SEPA’s Executive Director and Chairwoman of Solar Power International, has been overseeing the explosive growth of the organization with sound judgment and reliable business smarts since 2004. Her career has focused on communicating the value of renewable energy and energy efficiency to utilities, municipal governments, and product manufacturers. Though diminutive in size, she’s a giant among her peers. Happily, I’ve attended the last three conferences, marveling at its obvious success. I asked Julia how it’s been to ride the upsurge.
IREC: Julia, congratulations on another remarkable conference. This one in San Diego felt even larger and more extraordinary than the past two conferences, which were remarkable and inspiring enough. Conference hotels were sold out seven months in advance, exhibition space was sold out by December ’07. I guess it’s fair to say that the growth of the conference is indicative of the growth in the industry?
JJH: Yes, the growth of the conference and trade show is indicative of the growth of the industry. But it’s also the nature of the event itself that is fueling the growth. Not every solar show is growing at this amazing rate. We put together a very strong educational program and offer opportunities for networking that other events have not been able to replicate. We’ve also made a concerted effort to grow our appeal to international companies, as demonstrated by the change to the event name earlier this year.
IREC: How much greater was the international presence at the 08 conference, in both exhibitors and attendees?
JJH: This year about 25 percent of our exhibitors and attendees were from outside the US, which is quite a high number. International exhibitors represented 16 countries and international attendees represented 92 countries.
IREC: Yikes! Have you had a chance to compare attendance numbers for ‘06 and ‘07 with the ’08 conference?
JJH: We have. We’ve broken it down into exhibitors, attendees and public visitors. For 2006, in San Jose, we had 120 exhibitors, 6,000 attendees, 2,500 public visitors. In 2007, we had 210 exhibitors, 9,500 attendees and 3,000 public visitors. This year, in San Diego, we hit some major numbers in exhibitors (422), attendees (17,500) and public visitors (5,700). And we had 450 companies on a waiting list to exhibit. We knew our numbers for the ’08 conference would be up, but we thought we might have some attrition because of the economic situation. We were pleasantly surprised.
IREC: This year’s conference was especially upbeat, thanks to the eight-year extension of the solar investment tax credit (ITC). Are you already seeing an increase in SEPA memberships, and has the ITC been a factor in that?
JJH: Yes, SEPA’s membership is also growing at an amazing rate. We have more than doubled the number of members now than we had at this point last year. I would say that the ITC will likely be a factor in our membership growth in the future, but was not necessarily a huge factor over the past year since there was uncertainty about if and when it would be extended.
IREC: The ’08 conference is over, SEPA’s no doubt working on ’09. Are you expecting even larger numbers than this year, and how are you gearing up for it?
JJH: We are expecting significant growth in 2009. We expect to be able to accommodate all of our exhibitors from this year plus the 450 waitlisted companies for a total of about 900 companies. We also sold out of conference passes in advance of the event this year and will have more space available next year to accommodate additional attendees.
IREC: I loved how you teamed up with Renewable Energy World to have live, daily interviews and conference coverage which were carried on the Solar Power International website; they’re still on the site. That’s a very smart marketing tool. Did you approach REW? Will you continue that for next year?
JJH: We have an excellent longstanding relationship with RenewableEnergyWorld.com. We have been working with them on many aspects of our event for many years, and the Internet Video Broadcast was the latest addition to the partnership. It will continue next year, and be even better!
IREC: How do you determine who can exhibit? Is it first come-first serve? Is there any limit on size of exhibit space?
JJH: Typically for us, companies who were sponsors of the previous year’s event are offered the first opportunity to reserve space, followed by non-sponsoring exhibitors from the previous year. After that, we open it up to new companies. We also operate on a priority points system. Companies get points based on the number of years they have exhibited at the show, amount of sponsorship dollars they have contributed, and whether they are a member of SEPA and SEIA. Companies are assigned space on the show floor based on the number of points they have accumulated. Once space has been assigned to the companies that have points, we open up to new companies who are assigned space on a first come first serve basis.
IREC: It doesn’t seem like Solar Power International is theme driven; rather focused on relevant, timely issues. Does this give you more flexibility in determining who will be your keynoters and panelists?
JJH: That’s right; we actually never have a “theme” for the conference. We have a planning committee of about 90 volunteers representing all segments of the solar industry plus utilities, government agencies, and others with a professional interest in solar. The committee works throughout the winter and early spring to select the general topics that need to be covered and then we make tweaks through the spring and early summer on the specific topics as we select expert speakers.
IREC: You can get top-notch keynoters just five or six months before the conference? Besides nailing down heavy weight keynoters, what obstacles have you found to be vexing in conference organizing?
JHH: We are fortunate in that we are able to attract very high-level keynote speakers without much difficulty. The biggest challenge is the schedules of the big name speakers. People like Al Gore and Bill Clinton would have been there this year if they didn’t have other things on their calendar already that they couldn’t change, but we’re hopeful for next year! The biggest challenge has been managing such rapid growth. With an event our size, we have to book convention centers many years in advance, but it is impossible to predict exactly how large the industry and the show will be that far out.
IREC: Clinton? Gore? I’m wondering who the 2009 top bill might be. What was the biggest surprise of this conference? Attendance? Governor Schwarzenegger?
JHH: Both. We had predicted 15,000 this year, and we ended up with 23,000. That was astounding to us. Governor Schwarzenegger was also a surprise since his staff had called on Friday just as we were leaving for San Diego to finally give us an answer and say that he wasn’t going to be able to make it the following week. So when they called back on Monday morning at 11am and said that he wanted to show up later that day, it was quite the challenge to pull it off!
IREC: Congratulations again, Julia, for another stunningly successful conference. I’m already looking forward to Solar Power International 2009.