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
class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-759″ />By now, most of us know that the demand for solar continued to rise during the recession. Demand continues to grow throughout the world. A couple of days ago, the SEIA published The US Solar Industry Year in Review 2009. The opening sentence of the report stated: “Despite the Great Recession of 2009, the U.S. solar energy industry grew— both in new installations and employment.” Reuters reported that the “industry surged on incentives.” In February, Todd Woody provided details of how California and New York utilities are playing a key role in solar growth in the New York Times Green Inc. blog. “Over the past few weeks, some 1,300 megawatts’ worth of distributed solar deals and initiatives have been announced or approved. At peak output, that is the equivalent of a big nuclear power plant” wrote Woody. Yes, it’s only one big nuclear power plant, certainly not “As Big As Coal” which needs to be the rallying cry of the Solar Revolution, but, nonetheless, in the midst of the financial meltdown, it’s something.
So, OK, we are moving in the right direction over the last several weeks…but we’ve got a long way to go. There is so much do to on so many levels. As much credit as some will give to the utilities, the truth remains that the Solar Revolution is a grassroots cause. The efforts of the cause as a whole depend on each and every one of us doing what we can to educate and promote the beneits…even the imperitive…of creating solar As Big As Oil. We cannot settle for less. Along these lines, in order to be most effective, we’ve all got to understand the magnatude of unresolved issues that stand in the way of our goal.
In the Solar Industry Magazine (April 2010, Volume 3, Number 3~it is only available via “deadtree media”) that I recently receved, Michael Coddington, Kate Anderson and Benjamin Kropski did a great job of summarizing a New York City case study assessing grid-level effects of distributed photovoltaics. The article identifies many of the technical issues that stand in the way of rapidly connecting distributive PV to the utility networks. On the front page of the same Solar Industry issue, Bob Powell presents a look at utility-scale financing components. I highly recommend these two front page articles. The NYC Study article describes that utilities use two types of electrical distribution systems. By far the most common is these is the simpler radial system, which is designed for electricity to go just one-way. In such a distribution system, a lot of hardware and software is devoted to detecting and protecting against “reverse power flow,” which is “indicative of an upstream supply feeder fault.” Needless to say, this is not good from a net metering and feed-in-tariff point-of-view. The article also discusses the problems caused by the highly variable nature of solar energy supply and the importance of the development of solutions that will make this source of energy more reliable (such as battery technology or eventually a national or worldwide smartgrid). The front page companion piece reminds us that regulators and legistlators are driving the utilities to do the right thng, “either through mandates such as enacted renewable portfolio standards (RPS)…or via less formal expectations that a utility has in response to climate change.” Failure to meet RPS standards will hit the utilities where it hurts them most: earnings. The challenge for the utility becomes how to finance all the change required to achieve the RPS. There is so much great information is these two Solar Industry Magazine articles.
There was also a separate blog by Tom Raftery in the greenmonk blog. First, I want to say, that this blog is one great example of what we each can do to do our part for the Solar Revolution. Tom’s catchy sub-heading says “green from the bottom up; sustainable from the top down.” On April 16, Tom writes about “Are Utility Companies Ready for Full Smart Grids?” Tom takes a look at the IT angle to the new way of doing business. He also has a video interviw with Chris King, the Chief Regulatory Officer of eMeter. Tom writes that he commonly asks “What is a Smart Grid? Almost all the interviewees talk about an infrastructure capable of full end-to-end, two-way communications. That is, communication from utilities down to the appliance level in-home, and from appliances back up to utilities.” Tom probes the challenges that smart grid poses to IT, appliance development and, probably most importantly, consumer education.
So, with this kind of perspective, how are we doing so far with our Big as Oil goal? Well, in a recent Greentechmedia research article titled “Can the U.S. or California Institute a Feed-In Tariff?” Eric Wesoff writes that the RPS in California has failed. “And the U.S. solar market remains thwarted by tight financing, fragmented policies, and spotty permitting, as well as restrictive access to public lands. Arguably, policy trumps technology in matters of energy, and the U.S. has a long way to go in developing a favorable energy and solar policy.” Wescoff’s article covers an April 14 presentation made by Ted Ko of the FIT Coalition. “California’s renewable energy piece was 14 percent of the energy mix in 2003,” cited Ko in his speech to the Silicon Valley Photovoltaics Society, “and actually dropped down to 13 percent in 2008. Further, he asserts that there is little chance that will California achieve its goal of 20 percent in 2010 and 33 percent in 2020.”
The answer, according to Ko, is getting a feed-in tariff imposed in California and in the U.S. Ko defined the feed-in tariff as a predefined, pre-approved PPA between renewable energy generators and utilities. He called it “the most effective policy in the world for getting cost-effective renewable energy online. It’s simple, fair and effective.”
As they say, “the Devil’s in the details.” There are so many details to research and understand. We need to continue to feed one another with newly developing information and ideas. Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin are great communication tools for this. So are invididual, company and public blogs. Write your own; subscribe to this one and others. WholeSolar will be starting a blog list. Let’s all share what we’re discovering and believing. Find a solar or renewable energy meetup group in your area. If you can’t find one, start one. Please be a part of Vote Solar and other similar organizations, where our numbers create “power to change power.” And please encourage other to join you in signing the Solar Bill of Rights. Most importantly, take action (if you have not yet) and increase your action (if you have).