Everyone's talking about solar power these days. It's been mentioned quite a few times in the presidential debates, and it was a popular topic of conversation at the recent Assembly Technology Expo.

It seems like everyone’s talking about green energy these days; when they’re not talking about the gloomy economy, of course. It’s hard to pick up a magazine or newspaper without seeing full-page ads from various companies touting their renewable energy strategies. Solar and wind power have also been hot topics in the presidential debates.

At the recent Assembly Technology Expo, quite a few people I talked to mentioned various solar initiatives. They’re providing a silver lining in many business portfolios that have been rocked by the recent downturn in the automotive industry and the housing sector. Some exhibitors even showcased solar panel production equipment in their displays. Several machine builders and systems integrators told me they’re seeing an increase in activity as new projects start to ramp up.

Most of the folks I talked to on the show floor were optimistic about future growth, especially since solar power appears to be a vast, untapped market with unlimited potential. The amount of energy contained in sunlight striking the earth for just 40 minutes is supposedly equal to the world’s total energy consumption for one full year.

According to WinterGreen Research Inc. (Lexington, MA), the solar energy market will soar from 0.3 percent of our global energy supply to more than 15 percent within five years. The residential solar market is projected to grow from $2.5 billion in 2007 to more than $39 billion by 2014. WinterGreen also predicts that solar panel production will skyrocket from 74 million units in 2007 to more than 25 billion units by 2014.

To feed that growing demand, many solar panel manufacturing plants have popped up throughout the United States. For instance, Sanyo North America just opened a facility in Salem, OR; OptiSolar (Hayward, CA) is building a photovoltaic panel plant in Sacramento; and Solon AG (Berlin, Germany) has a new 105,000-square-foot factory in Tuscon, AZ.

Many solar panel manufacturers are hungry for robots, conveyors and other automated assembly equipment. Even though an acid rain is currently falling on Wall Street, let’s hope the sun keeps shining brightly on good old Main Street USA.