How is marketing solar like pushing a rock?

Lowering a solar panel to a rooftop in Wisconsin
Installing a solar panel. I believe scenes like this will become increasingly common over the coming decade.

As a market force, solar is moving out of its infancy.   It’s been interesting to watch its growth spurt  over the past couple years.  Based on my experience with my own and others’ companies, from following industry conversations on social media like LinkedIn, and from attending educational events such as the Good & Green Marketing conference held last November in Chicago, here is a simple equation describing the solar industry in the U.S.:

Massive public curiosity and interest…

The public has developed a tremendous interest in solar and other clean energy technology.  It’s moved from a fringe, “hippy” thing to a mainstream, albeit cutting-edge, phenomenon.

+ general public ignorance
The public is amazingly ignorant about solar and about energy efficiency in general.

For instance, after attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair last June as a solar thermal vendor, my company received a large number of calls from individuals concerned about their high heat bills.  They were hoping to knock them down with solar.  We had to explain to them that, while solar thermal is amazing technology and can be a cost-effective home heating solution, it’s not usually a good way to combat high heating expenses.  Solar is powerful but it’s not fossil fuel.  It needs to be used in conjunction with energy conservation.  Air seal and insulate first, then think about solar.  (In fact, this experience caused us to reevaluate the entire focus of our business.  We have since added Home Performance with Energy Star evaluations and air sealing and insulation services to our offerings for a more wholistic, vertically integrated approach.)

That’s just one example.  For another one, here’s an experiment you can try for yourself:  When solar comes up in a mainstream conversation, try injecting the word “PV” and watch the confused expressions.  (For the uninitiated, PV is commonly-used shorthand for “photovoltaics” amongst those in the solar industry)

= huge potential for growth
Taking the above points into account, I believe there is massive potential for expansion in the solar market.  I like to think of it as potential energy – like a boulder (public interest) teetering at the edge of a cliff, held back by a number of obstacles at its base.  All it will take is the removal of a few stones to unleash the energy that will allow the boulder to fall.

However, many of these obstacles are significant.  As I see it, some of the major ones are:

  1. Cost – My company happens to be located in Wisconsin, where there are some pretty nice incentives programs. Even so, solar is a big investment and a lot of people still see it as beyond their means.  Even with incentives, the payback on PV is too long for the typical mainstream person to consider it.  I am optimistic that technological improvements will shorten the payback in the future (and certain that rising energy prices will, too), but for now it’s a major barrier.
  2. Ignorance – Despite its rising popularity, solar is still not on the  radar screen for the majority of the population. Many more are interested but confused, as in my example above.  Also there’s a lot of confusion between solar thermal (which has a relatively fast payback) and PV.
  3. Skepticism – based on ignorance and sometimes reality.  Comments like these are common:  “Can solar really work in the winter in Wisconsin?”  (Answer: Yes!)   “You’ll never see a payback from solar.” (Answer:  It depends on the system.  For off grid PV?  Maybe not.  For the typical solar domestic hot water system?  Absolutely you will, typically in 7 to ten years but it could be less depending on your hot water usage.)
  4. Fear – of shoddy or incompetent work (happened a lot back in the 80’s and I’m afraid we’re seeing signs of it now as out-of-work contractors and electricians jump on the solar bandwagon); fear of not getting their money’s worth if they sell the property before payoff;  fear of the unknown.

What are the solutions?  Here are a few:

  • Better incentives and rebates – Government seems to be working on this, although it varies a lot by state.
  • Financing options – either through installing companies, banks, specialized clean energy financing companies, or municipal programs like PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) financing, in which communities lend money to residents and the payments are added to property taxes.  (This also addresses the objection of not wanting to make major investments in a home that one might sell before payback is reached.)
  • Education – by schools, churches, and especially business.  I personally believe that education should be a major component of any businesses’ marketing plan, but especially when it comes to renewable energy.  We need to listen to and dialogue with the public.  We especially need to make ourselves aware of questions and objections and answer them truthfully and honestly.  We also need to answer in terms our customers can understand and relate to.
  • Collaboration – We need to frame our information according to the worldview of whatever segment of the population we’re dealing with.  Often the best way to do this is to work together with other non-business entities.  For instance, I just attended (as a vendor) an eco-spirituality forum hosted by a local Catholic church and led by a Franciscan sister.  That woman was able to speak to the people present in words that resonated deeply with them.  I could have gotten up and given them the same information about how important is is to save energy, but she was able to do it so much more successfully than I could have because she framed it in terms of their faith.  Churches and other community groups are starting to speak up for the environment and I think any renewable energy business that doesn’t tap into this is missing a very powerful alliance.  (I say this very respectfully, by the way.)

Marketing solar is an important and exciting field, and one I’m proud to be part of.  I’m sure there are plenty more good ideas and insights out there.  What are some of yours?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer specializing in helping Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into marketing, sales writing and sustainability, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.

4 thoughts on “How is marketing solar like pushing a rock?”

  1. Thats some very insightful thoughts on marketing solar panels. I was part of a three person team that constructed a similarly innovative marketing strategy for a large solar panel manufacturing company using social media strategic marketing methods. One major approach was to target the young generation and to get them involved as they are the major drivers of traffic on social networking sites.

  2. HI Anne. Great piece. I can attest to talking people out of solar for heating bills “I just bought an 1800’s farm house and it’s really cold and I want to save some money on my heating bills with solar.”
    Good for you for combining whole home performance with solar. I would wager you are positioned well for whatever Focus has planned for the impending efficiency/renewables policies it will unroll Jan 28th.

  3. Hi Rashkit,

    I think it’s really important to approach communities on their own turf and in their own language – like you did by connecting with young people through social media. I’d be curious to hear how it went for you.

    Another thing I’m starting to think about a lot is the presence of what Natural Step consultant Torbjorn Lahti calls “fire souls” – those individuals who actively promote sustainability in their communities. I think connecting with them can only be done if one is truly authentic about one’s goals, but what powerful allies they can be!

  4. Hi Carol,

    Good to hear from you! Yes, Focus is certainly moving in a direction that’s aligned with where we’ve been heading by requiring home performance evaluations to be an integral part of the incentives process. I have to say I think it’s a good thing – taking a more holistic approach to energy.

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