It’s almost November. Solar Power International 2010 is in the rear view
mirror and 2011 is just around the corner. It’s a great time to ask the question: How are we doing as an industry? At ASES 2010 we heard Lyn Rosoff of Smart Power tell us that marketing polls indicate that “84% of those polled intend to buy clean energy.”
Of course their actions indicate far less. So, what’s wrong? There seems to be a consensus of opinion that the major market objections for buying solar are:
- Solar lacks a strong value proposition (high cost, long payback)
- There’s no financing
- Solar energy is unreliable because it depends on the weather
- It’s too complex
- There’s no marketing and therefore no buzz
In general, the consumers don’t understand the technology. We have an energy-ignorant public that is easily misinformed. So, what can we do? How can we engage the public? It’s not like solar is the first industry to face these challenges. All we need to do is look to other industries in the past to get a clue as to where we are going. Look at the PC industry in the 1980′s, look at the home improvement industry to some extent or the Internet in the 1990′s. Solar needs a user-friendly GUI. Solar needs to get simple. Over the past couple of years we’re seeing the beginnings to the move toward simplification expressed in many ways. The introduction of an AC panel by Westinghouse (formerly known as Andalay) last year has lead to a number of panel and micro inverter manufacturers announcing at the Solar Power International 2010 Show their own version of AC panels to be available for sale sometime in 2011. (by the way, WholeSolar is proud to now be an authorized Westinghouse distributor/dealer). Last year Zep introduced a labor-saving racking system, pushing other racking manufacturers to do the same. Further, Zep recently announced broadening the number of panel manufacturers with which its product will be compatible. One manufacturer, UpSolar, was displaying a Zep-compatible AC panel at the Solar Power International 2010 Show. We’re seeing more software and web-based companies introducing products that simplify paperwork required throughout the solar sale and installation process. “User-friendly,” “plug-and-play,” “easy-to-install” become common catch phrases as technology moves from the early-adopter to the mainstream market in any industry. Solar is certainly no different in this regard. But that brings us back to the market objections I identified earlier. How do we as an industry, or as members of the solar tribe, break through the mystery and engage the public? We believe the answer is simple (to paraphrase a former US President): it’s about the marketing, solar. The solar industry has a retail messaging problem. We need to develop a simple message, an easy message and a strong compelling call to action. The first step is understand the customer. Lyn Rosoff spoke of marketing studies that showed these ten key findings to help us understand customers:
- There are regional differences as far as what motivates buying solar customers. Some areas, like Oregon, customers are motivated by environmental concerns, while in other areas they are motivated by finance. In other words, there are two different types of “green” motivators.
- To many, going solar means a change in lifestyle
- There is huge customer confusion about solar. As one person put it, “Understanding solar can feel like a full-time job.”
- Solar lacks a clear brand, or as another respondent put it “Where’s the Nike of the solar industry?”
- Upfront costs are the biggest barrier.
- A solar sale is a long sales cycle (1 to 2 years).
- Installers are the key. Customers like their installers.
- Internet is the key. Most solar customers used the Internet.
- Many customers asked “what is the message of the solar industry?”
- Thinking about solar IS an action
How Do We Figure This Smart Grid Out? Introducing CADER: Communities for Advanced Distributed Energy Resources
My, but we learn so slow,
And heroes, they come and they go
And leave us behind,
As though we’re supposed to know
~ Joe Walsh, The Eagles, Pretty Maids All in a Row
The recent coal mine collapse and the gulf oil spill has caused the blogoshere to once again heat up with debates about clean energy versus the fossil fuel stuff. Scientists are saying that the Deepwater Oil Disaster could be more than 10 times worse than initial estimates — and the well could keep spewing oil into the Gulf for months before the oil companies figure out how to stop it. Meanwhile, some elected officials who insisted all along that offshore drilling was safe are trying to tell us that we just need better “backup blowout preventers” on offshore oil rigs. Glenn Beck continues to compare Global Warming to Nazi propoganda, but as Lewis Black points out so humorously, Glenn Beck has “Nazi Tourette’s” (you’ve got to see the video ~ I had tears in my eyes laughing so hard). On the other side, I just read a great blog today written by Green Builder Media’s Ron Jones. It’s titled Hostage Situation and makes many great points. This point stood out for me:
“Why is it so difficult to get people to admit that we not only have the ability to make intelligent decisions and effect positive change in the way we conduct our lives, but that it is our moral obligation to do so? We know how to reduce the environmental impacts of our industries, our transportation, and our built environment. We are not forced to continue to pass the poison for the sake of profit.”
Getting off the poison and embracing the light, as I’ve written in earlier blogs and articles, is not a simple matter. In fact, it will take the coordination and cooperation of many disciplines to achieve the morally imperative change. At the end of last month we were very fortunate to attend the CADER Conference 2010 at the University of California at San Diego. The venue was spectacular, on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The gathering was even better. Attending were representatives of the California utilities, the Department of Energy, major universities, non-profit advocacy organizations, large and small manufacturers, green builders and green designers, among others.
Over the three-day conference there were several threads or themes that emerged. I will blog about them in the weeks and months to come. Most importantly, it is clear that to get from where we are to where we need to be it will take a cooperative effort by the broad range of disciplines representated at CADER 2010. In fact, I got a chuckle recently when someone made me aware of an article in Smart Grid News about the Smart Grid’s Most Powerful Men. More likely, an earlier Smart Grid News article on The Networked Grid 100: Movers and Shakers of the Smart Grid probably better captures the essence of our challenge. Many attending the CADER 2010 event were not on this list and clearly should be.
And what does all of this mean to the Solar Tribe? Jigar Shah, CEO of The Carbon War Room, founder of SunEdison, and brilliant futurist, put it very well in a recent email:
I think there needs to be a pivot by the solar industry away from solar advocacy towards Distributed Generation (DG) advocacy. This includes DG (solar, CHP, wind, small hydro, geothermal, etc) and, more importantly, aggressive electrical engineering (EE,) targeted storage, and smart grid.
Bringing together stakeholders in these various disiplines is the only way to sort out obstacles and opportunities. As we look around, we can find an unbelievable number of conferences and seminars on Smart Grid. Many organizations are creating forums for wide discussion and debate about where to go with with DG, EE and targeted storage. A quick search of the Internet identified the following gatherings in the very near future:
…and that’s just the next thirty days. In addition, these organizations exist for the purpose of advocating for distributed energy development:
There are many more I have not listed. Several blog installments can written on each of these organizations and others. They are necessary for the smart grid dialogues to take place.
So why does CADER have the opportunity to be different from these other conferences and organizations? It’s really quite simple and something of which I had not been previously aware. Communities, or microgrids, are natural innovation zones. They provide opportunities to perfect Smart Grid technologoes because communities have experimentation scalability. These microgrids also provide flexibility. At the community level, utilities can create partnerships with universities, as well as small and large businesses. At the community level, potentially contentious stakeholders are more likely to come together in cooperative efforts to jointly find solutions to the many technical challenges involved in creating a distributed energy smart grid. Perhaps most importantly, at the community level stakeholders can afford the trial-and-error required to acheive optimum cost reduction, without wide-scale public opinion slowing down or halting progress.
CADER is all about taking a community approach to advanced distributed energy. From the beginning to the end of the 2010 conference, attendees heard about progress being made at the microgrid level from a broad range of community spokesmen. We heard different perspectives to common challenges shared by stakeholders. We heard from community leaders in the city of Chula Vista about the real world challenges and accomplishments for turning a decent-sized community green. We heard from representatives of the University of California – Davis about their development of a net zero community. We heard about the development of microgrids in India, Borrego Springs CA, and Canada. All with different challenges and points of view. We heard from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), Sacramento Metropolitan District (SMUD) about the utilities community plans and actions. We heard from the current and former commissioners of the California Energy Commission, as well as the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) Coalition and World Alliance for Distributed Energy (WADE). We heard panels talk about the critical role that water is playing and will continue to play in the energy-water nexus. We took a tour of UCSDs 30MW microgrid.
I’ll cover all of these and more in upcoming blogs and articles. In the meantime, you can find many of the CADER presenters’ powerpoint presentations here. This is important and relevant to all of us, especially the solar tribe. We need more of this. In the past, the CADER Conference has been held bi-annually. Hopefully, it will shift to an annual event and broaden both its attendee base, as well as its media coverage.