Chaolysti and SmartPower Submit Abstract to SPI

Solar Power International SPI 2011 logoChaolysti has partnered with SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization focusing on clean energy and energy efficiency, to deliver an abstract for consideration to this year’s Solar Power International taking place October 17-20 in Dallas, TX.

For almost a decade, SmartPower has combined grassroots communityoutreach, breakthrough social and traditional media, incentives andchallenges, and compelling websites to help consumers take action onpurchasing renewable energy, reducing energy use, and becoming smarterabout the energy they use.

I learned about the work of SmartPower when I stumbled upon an excellent Huffington Post article written by SmartPower’s President Brian Keane last year highlighting marketresearch they had done on behalf of the solar industry.  Everyoneinvolved in marketing residential solar should read it. Now.

After a number of conversation, Brian and I decided to partner on anSPI presentation abstract that would combine market research done bySmartPower with industry analysis on the Northeast markets that I haveengaged in over the last five years to help interested residential solar companies work more effectively in the Northeast or expand successfully into its emerging markets.

Wish us luck. The committee will notify accepted presenters by June 15th.

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Chaolysti signs on as a Nova Sponsor of SolarFest

solarfest logoChaolysti has signed on as a Nova sponsor for SolarFest 2011, taking place at Forget-me-Not Farm in beautiful Tinmouth, VT. As partof this announcement, Chaolysti has also signed an agreement to providemarketing consulting services for SolarFest. A decade after attending my first SolarFest, the event which helped me jumpstart my career, I amcircling back now to provide my expertise to the festival that hassupported my development and enriched me.

In 2001, I attended my first SolarFest back at Daisy Hollow Farm as a bright-eyed college student just beginning my journey to learn aboutsolar and other renewable energy technologies. With my partner, I hadbuilt a self-contained and mobile off-grid PV system that we brought tothe festival to provide walkway lighting for the festival’s famousSun-Puppet gate after dark. It was one of the first field tests of theGnuMAD project that would soon set off on a three-plus month journey all over the country and Canada; a project documenting living off the gridwith technology that visited everything from major national parks andcutting-edge eco-communities and landmarks including the Taos EarthShip Community (New Mexico), Backwoods Solar Electric (Idaho), Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm (So. California) and many others.

During the 2001 festival, I sat in eagerly at workshops about battery technology, off-grid PV, solar thermal, small wind, and naturalbuilding methods. I talk with vendors providing supplies and products to off-grid and back-to-the-land dwellers to learn about what was good,what wasn’t, and to talk shop about technology innovations coming downthe line, like LED lighting and home automation (both which have arrived now).

I have actively volunteered at SolarFest for several years at thepower station, as a onsite volunteer wrangler, and a general go-toperson. SolarFest has grown and changed much since those Daisy HollowDays, but it still excels at its core mission- providing renewableenergy education through the arts through dozens of workshop tracks andmusic performances powered by a 100% solar stage.

SolarFest has been a highlight of my summer for years. Enthusiasts,industry people, and the sustainability-curious all find a place atSolarFest. Why not check it out for yourself and see why?

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Will Realtime Smart Meter Data Create Value for Residential Solar?

If you drive a car, it is likely that you can quote the miles per gallon statistics for your vehicle. In some cases, you might even have a rough idea what your dollars per tank value is. But do you know your home’s peak electricity use per kilowatt-hour cost? In other words, do youknow the effect of how what appliances you use and when you use themcost you?

Toyota’s Prius introduced the mass-market concept of providingrealtime and longer term data about how driving habits impacted fueluse. In summer 2008, when record gasoline prices were at the pump,America became obsessed with miles per gallon and gained a clearunderstanding of a dollars per tank value. Since then, many majorautomakers have incorporated their own versions of either an average or realtime mile-per-gallon readout to new vehicle models.

Part of the reason why connection between the use and cost is easier to make with autos is partially because consumers pre-pay for theirenergy and partially because they prepay for this energy frequently, on average three times per month. What if Americans prepaid for their electricity like their gasoline and had access to realtime information about how their electricity isbeing used? Would this information help provide not only a deeperunderstanding for the value of electricity, would it also help create a better understanding of the value of residential solar energy?

While prepay electricity service in common in other parts of theworld like Central America, rural United Kingdom, South Africa, andmany others, it is a relatively newer entrant to the US marketplace,where it is currently targeted toward customers with poor credit or who have had hard time keeping up with their bills. According to a recentarticle by Greentech Media, some prepay electricity services are available in Arizona and North Carolina.

In Texas, the First Choice Control First program couples Smart Meters with the prepay program to help customers plan and make informed decisions about theirelectricity use. Until this program rolled out, most prepay retailersestimated how much a customer used, rather than tallying exactly.Prepaid customers wanting to conserve didn’t see much immediatebenefit, and had no feedback telling them when their accounts would hit zero. With the prepay and Smart Meter coupling, prepaid homeelectricity consumers can begin to gain a better understanding of their realtime and average energy use vs. cost statistics.

So why does this all matter?

In the 1950’s, total residential electricity usage in the US was 288 billion kilowatt-hours. In 2001, household electricity use was four times that at nearly 1,140 billion kilowatt-hours and quickly growing since. Growing demand for electricity has createdurgent need for new generating capacity often times meaning thebuilding of more coal, natural gas, and possibly nuclear generatingfacilities. Or, utilities need to prioritize putting aggressiveconservation strategies in to place to reduce the need for newgenerating facilities.

A study released in February this year conducted by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory of Oklahoma Gas& Electric (OG&E) customers showed that people willsignificantly conserve electricity during peak demand if given priceincentives and tools to modify usage. According to a 2009 study filed by the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, if 60 to 75 percent of customers stay on dynamic pricing rates orparticipate in demand response/reduction programs like Smart Meters,the nationwide reduction in peak demand would be 138 GW by 2019,representing a 14% reduction in peak demand for 2019 compared to ascenario with no demand response programs. This would equate toavoiding construction on many generating facilities.

According to Ken Devore, director of Southern California Edison’s SmartConnect program, US utilities have deployed more than eight million smart meters with 60 million expected by 2020. This represents a significantpotential for prepaid electricity programs to roll out nationwide andemerge into a wider marketplace outside of the traditional credit-poorconsumer markets. If marketed correctly, these programs could helpconsumers better understand the cost of the electricity usage in thecontext of appliance usage.

As a corollary, this has a great potential to better contextualizethe value of designing residential solar energy as a conservationmeasure that can reduce demand during peak hours of use, as opposed tomany more traditional solar design approaches which aim for bestyear-round production. At the recent Greentech Media Solar Summit, Fong Wan, VP of Energy Procurement for PG&E, delivered a keynoteoutlining how predictability of output and the buffering and storing of output from solar and wind resources would be key to their growth as viable energy generation options. As the penetration of solar becomesmore dense on the grid, utilities will likely begin to require morestringent requirements for how the output of those systems, fromresidential up through utility-scale solar, match the demand fromenergy consumers.

At least on the residential side, prepaying coupled with thefeedback from Smart Metering could have an enormous potential torevolutionize the design and understanding of the value of home solarenergy systems.

Illustration Credit: Christian Science Monitor/Bennett

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See You at SolarTech’s Solar Leadership Summit!

solartech logoOn March 29 and 30, SolarTech will host its second Solar Leadership Summit in Santa Clara, CA. The theme of the summit, being billed as “Solar3.0–A Path from Policy to Profitability,” plans to bring  top policy,finance, and emerging solutions leaders together to chart a course thatwill establish a clear path from policy driven markets to a long-term,stable market for the solar industry.

The two-day summit will include sessions about financing and itsrelations to system performance, permitting/inspection/interconnection,installation technology/trends and quality control/certificationimportance. Also planned are roundtables, panels, and keynotesaddressing what a post-policy marketplace would look like and how to get there, addresses from leaders in the utility sector, market trendreports, and much more.

You can view the entire agenda here.

I will be covering the event on behalf of the Green Light Distrikt, where I am serving as the SF Bay Area Industry Insider for the growingnews, information, and networking site for young professionals incleantech fields.

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Themes from the 2011 Greentech Media Solar Summit

Greentech Media’s Solar Summit, held March 14 and 15 in Palm Springs, CA, was not your average solarindustry event. A high level of industry expertise was expected of all275 participants, which mostly comprised of higher-level management andexecutives. Panel discussions instead delved deep on very high-leveltopics; from diversification of PV product lines by market sector toincreased need for inverters to respond to utility needs to the effectsof regulatory bottlenecks on project finance and investor confidence.Several sessions were specifically devoted to covering challenges andinnovations in product manufacturing as well; from innovations infully-automated manufacturing to analyzing competitiveness acrossseveral thin-film technologies.

Days before the summit, GTM Research along with SEIA released their 2010 solar year in review report. (Executive summary) The highlights? The total amount of PV installed in 2009 doubled in2010 (435 MW to 878MW). The utility-scale market is growing rapidly.California is not the only game in town; it was only 27% of the 2010market. The geographic diversity is growing to include East Coast states like New Jersey (14%) and even Pennsylvania (5%). Reviewing thesenumbers was an exciting way to kick off and contextualize discussions at the summit.

greentech media solar summit 2011 sessionAccording to the way many panelists positioned their statements, the benchmarking of PV projects and components are changing and have been for a littlewhile now. Where once the almighty dollar per watt was the standard,levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) is emerging quickly as the winningbenchmark. Unfortunately, calculating LCOE is a much more complexprocess than determining dollar per nameplate watt. However, the results of LCOE calculations offer a much more precise understanding about thevalue of a PV system: what it will produce (kilowatt-hours). This iscritical for investors as they engage in due diligence before backing aproject.

In a market where module manufacturers are quickly racing toward thelowest dollar per watt costs across the technology spectrum, LCOE isemerging as a way for those manufacturers to differentiate themselves as a better value. To break this one down even further: it’s the shiftfrom talking about solar in terms of power (nameplate capacity of asystem) and instead in terms of energy (amount of energy produced). Assolar continues to grow as a utility-scale solution, as a few panelsduring the summit clearly indicated, discussion will continue to focusmore on evaluating the energy production and technology choices forthese projects on a LCOE basis.

Another trend that came up multiple times, though already starting to become visible in the trade show circuits, was the differentiation inproduct lines across application sectors. For instance, many top panelmanufacturers like SunTech and SunPower are developing different modulelines specifically for residential, commercial flat roof, andutility-scale applications. We should expect to see more of this marketsegmentation as utility-scale solar continues to grow, as that sectorwill require much different support than its smaller-scale commercial or even residential cousins.

Panelists also explored the relationship between the growingutility-scale solar industry and the utility providers. Unfortunately,the production supply curve of solar PV does not closely match thedemand profile the utilities need to serve. As more utility-scale solar(either PV or Concentrating Solar technologies) interconnects to thegrid, panelists from the major California utilities discussed the needfor cost-effective storage in order to mitigate the intermittent natureof solar energy. Utility-scale solar also needs to begin to respond like other generating facilities; being both more reactive and moreinteractive with grid operator needs based on demand, faults, or loadchanges.  Manufacturers of inverters were concerned with being able torespond effectively to these situations.

Overall, much of the discussion at the summit revolved around thechallenges that are in the near future of the solar industry focusing on the large commercial to utility-scale sectors. The key now is scale.Solar is scaling in the US at a staggering rate, as witnessed in thejump between installed MW in 2009 and 2010. Utility-scale PV will needto respond better to the needs of the utility. Concentrating Solar Power technologies will need to better handle land-use issues andtransmission interconnection hurdles. Inverters will need to helputility-scale installations react like other generating sources on thegrid in the eyes of grid operators. Policies on state and federal levels need to provide a more stable environment for investors to operate andback projects. Manufacturing needs to overcome challenges in scalability to reach past 1GW production.

As Jurgen Krehnke, President of SMA America, put it, “Solar must play like any other energy source in the eyes of the utility and bereliable.”

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Touring Sierra Nevada’s Solar Brewery

Sierra Nevada is a success story in the craft brewing movement, and I’m a big fan oftheir Pale Ale and commitment to sustainability and energy-efficientoperations, so it made sense that while I was traveling through theChico, CA area I would stop by for a tour of one of the smartest andmost efficient craft brewing operations in America.

One of the first sights that greets you when you enter the campus is a massive 442kW SunPower tracking carport structure. Since itscommissioning in late 2007, this solar energy system has generatedenough kilowatt-hours to run 200 residences. Check out realtime information about the system output and get some other interesting facts about its energy generation equivalence.

Looking at the sky through SunPower carport at Sierra NevadaAs if that wasn’t enough, not long after in 2008, the brewery contracted Chico Electric to install another 1.4MW of roof-mounted solar across several buildings on campus. Theyinstalled nearly 7,000 Mitsubishi 185W panels over several differentroof surfaces. PVI 60kW, PVI82kW & PVI95kW inverters from SolectriaRenewables provide the conversion capabilities. You can see photos ofboth projects, plus a few shots from around the brewery in this Flickr photostream.

Solar is just a part of the efforts to close the loop at SierraNevada. To round off these projects, the brewery also installed fourfuel cells totaling 1.2MW of capacity. The brewery also built its ownall-electric rail spur to bring Canadian malts right to the facilities’back door and eliminate the need for diesel trucks in that “final mile.” Nothing here goes to waste; Sierra Nevada sends their spent grains offto feedlots as well.

Think about it this way: it’s one thing to be green for green’s sake, but what does that really buy you in the end? Sierra Nevada’s businessdecisions to use renewable energy technologies, to recycle, compost,eliminate wasteful operations, focus on efficiency and quality, andclose the loop on energy and materials makes it a model 21st Centurybusiness.

So raise a glass of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and feel good about it.

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Results of a Consumer Marketing Study by SolarTech

According to a recent study cosponsored by SolarTech and San Jose State University, to move solar PV to consumer mass market adoption, solar companiesneed to simplify their proposals, provide more information about actual system performance and reliability (case studies), and focus more on marketing a unified system offering as opposed to a confusinglypiecemeal set of products.

San Jose State University conducted the study and surveyed consumerattitudes among residents in Santa Clara County, California (SiliconValley), considered a bell-weather county in a bell-weather state for consumer solar adoption. A panel of industry experts ranging fromprogram administrators in utility and government to representatives of solar installers discussed the top-level findings in a webinar onMarch 18th. Over 90 attendees listened in on the discussion.

First, the demographics. Survey respondents consisted of 163 singlefamily households, were overwhelmingly reflective of the traditional demographics of early adopting solar consumers: between 45 to 64years in age, with an income above $100,000, overwhelmingly caucasian, and having achieved an education of bachelor’s degree or higher.

Before delving in, let’s look at some of the most notable findings:

  • 83% of respondents to the question of intent to purchase indicated looking out 24 months or more on a decision.
  • 63% of the respondents could not accurately recall the name of any solar company that provides residential solar.
  • 39% perceived solar as reliable and 11% perceived solar as affordable.

Clearly, the overall perception of the solar brand, aside from theissue of any individual provider, is poor. Being good for theenvironment is no longer enough to motivate a purchase. Installingcompanies must address actual or perceived issues of affordability andsystem (and company) reliability to help motivate consumers to consider buying solar now as opposed to waiting.

The findings of the study give us insight into major areas ofimprovement needed. Doug Pyne, president of SolarTech, divided thefindings into three major tiers based on importance to the consumer.See figure below.

three levels importance SolarTech studyWhile the results of this study show great disparity between the importanceof price and financing options, as solar enters into mass marketadoption, it is expected that the importance of financing will riseconsiderably. Research amongst different demographic groups isnecessary to confirm, though the success of solar leasing and similarprograms so far gives us indication that those options are alreadybecoming more important.

Jeanine Cotter, CEO of Bay Area residential solar installer Luminalt, suggested that we all need more follow-up from consumers who do notgo ahead with proposals to better understand the barriers that arekeeping them from engaging.

Jesse Denver, Energy Officer with the City of San Jose, suggestedthat government and other non-profit educational outlets should take a greater role providing technology and brand neutral informationabout the viability and reliability of solar energy as a trusted and non-partisan third-party.

Andrew Yip, Solar and Customer Generation at PG&E, pushed back on the suggestion that utilities or incentive programsshould do more to market solar energy. He pointed out that theutilities and incentive programs have made resources and educationavailable and it is up to the solar industry to market their brands to consumers to drive adoption. He did concede that there was still alot of question about how to best make the educational resourcesknown to relevant consumers and stakeholders.

Here’s the take away for residential solar companies:

  1. Installing companies need to make proposals simpler to understand.
  2. Installing companies need to simplify their solar energy systemofferings into comprehensive products that resonate with generalconsumer understanding.
  3. Marketing of solar energy needs to respond to, as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute put it, mainstream America’s concerns of “hot showers, cold beer, and lit rooms.”
  4. Consumers need access to unbiased information: real performancedata from installations and technology-neutral explanations of what the system can do and how they work.

You can download the slides from the webinar here (PDF). Stay tuned: The full report will be available soon.

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Green Building and The Problem of Marketing Greenness

I was recently contacted by an associate at ZweigWhite, a research firm serving the architecture, engineering, and environmental consulting markets, to comment on a series of studies released by Sustainable Rhythm on perceptions amongst green building professionals on greencertifications, methods of evaluating green products and services, andmarketing green-ness to their constituents. Here’s my take on theresults.

What we are seeing in part here is the natural maturation of thegreen building industries. Instead of being “wowed” by terms withambiguous definitions (like the word “green” itself), consumers aregravitating toward demanding case studies and other research-basedevidence to help evaluate the effectiveness of a particular product toreach a specific goal (i.e. save energy, automate a building, create amore productive/healthy environment for building occupants). The NorthCarolina Triangle Chapter study showed that firms were most concernedwith the impact a green building product had on energy efficiency,actual performance data (suggesting case studies), and life cycle cost(suggesting return on investment analysis) in their decision-makingprocess in product selection.

As the results of this study suggest, being green for the sake ofbeing green is trending out. While we are still in an early adopterperiod where there will be cases of consumers specifying certain greenbuilding products and practices, the data from the study clearly showsthat both firms and the consumers they serve are trending towardROI-related decision-making. A similar transformation happened in thesolar industry at the dawn of financing products and power-purchaseagreements; both tools which offered a significant ROI over expensiveand high down payment direct ownership and opened up an entirely newmarketplace for large-scale installations and transactions whichcompletely transformed the industry.

A big problem with communicating the benefits of being green is thatthere is no universally trusted voice, brand, or trustmark that hascreated and passed down a definition of “green.” Likewise, the terms“sustainable” or “appropriate technology” have created more questionsthan answers and also trended out of use. Even the “low carbon” and“carbon free” rage has died back. Net zero? Net producing? Haven’tcreated universal appeal either. As more buzzwords have entered thelexicon, consumer weariness has increased. How do you measure benefitslike greenness and sustainability? How do you equate carbon savings into a metric that makes impact?

To further confuse matters, a 2009 preliminary study conducted by the National Research Council Canada of LEED-certified buildings concluded that the LEED rating attained by a building rarely correlated with its energy savings:

“On average, LEED buildings used 18-39% less energy perfloor area than their conventional counterparts. However, 28-35% of LEED buildings used more energy than their conventional counterparts. Further, the measured energy performance of LEED buildings had littlecorrelation with certification level of the building, or the number ofenergy credits achieved by the building at design time.  Therefore, at a societal level, green buildings can contribute substantial energysavings, but further work needs to be done to define green buildingrating schemes to ensure more consistent success at the individualbuilding level.”

A follow up study is clearly required comparing the results of thisstudy to the results of buildings under the new LEED v3 system. Still,results like this that cause questioning about the glut ofcertifications in the market.

But this question of whether or not LEED buildings save energy puts a host of certifications in the limelight. Are FSC-certified lumber andpaper creating more biodiverse forest habitats? Are carbon offsetprojects really mitigating the effects of pollution?

What consumers need and crave is clarity, transparency, and value that is quantifiable and easy to understand.

In this age of rapid adoption of social media, it’s authenticity that consumers crave, not a stream of branded content. Truth, not hype.Authenticity, not buzzword-of-the-day. Data-driven-results, not obtuseclaims.

In order for the green building market to communicate the benefits of green, it needs to stop worrying about green and start talking aboutresults: money saved, investments recouped, increase in sales/engagement with company employing green building practices, employee productivityincreased, quality of life improved (happiness and satisfaction),maintenance on building lowered, hassles reduced.

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What is Going on at ASES?

So I’ve written about the American Solar Energy Society a bit in some recent posts. I’ve got ASES on the mind because for the last five years I have grownincreasingly unclear about what role ASES plays supporting the solarindustry. The more deeply involved I got with ASES, the more doubts Icontinued to have.

My latest interaction with ASES about the Solar 2011 Conference did not help my opinion improve. I hid this post for a while because it looked like my forum might happen after I hadoriginally posted about rejecting my proposal. To start, the conferenceorganizer had accidentally automatically sent out rejection letters toeveryone who submitted proposals. I posted minutes later to followersvia social media about my disappointment and received a bit of sympathy. Then, a few minutes after that, I received an email retracting theoriginal rejection, claiming that many had gone out in error and that Ishould “stay turned” about the actual decision on proposals. I postedagain much to the confusion of followers.

A week went by an I received another email, this time from anotherindividual working with organizing the conference stating that thismessage was the final determination on my proposal: another rejection.At this point, I emailed the forum participants informing them about the decision and turned to deciding how and if I would be involved with the conference this year.

Another week goes by and I receive a phone call from the individualwho had sent the final determination letter letting me know that thefinal rejection was again an error and that they indeed had accepted myproposal. At this point, I was completely skeptical. I was also unclearabout what benefits ASES would be extending to participants. I was alsoamazed that a conference with a 40 year track record was fumbling theball completely.  I concluded the phone call explaining that it wasunclear if I would be able to reconvene my panelists after alreadytalking with each of them about the final rejection determination.

With measured skepticism, I reached back out to the panelists and,one by one, they all declined to jump back on board. I can’t say I blame them. Unfortunately, my reputation was also on the line as I wasjockeying with the very busy time and schedules of executives. Having to put a spin on the confusion that I was experiencing was not my idea ofprofessionalism.

In the end, I decided to pull my proposal. I had no panelists anymore and I was already in too far for unbillable time. As any busy smallbusiness owner can tell you, there’s a clear point where you have to cut your losses on something. I was already past it.

I wish ASES luck straightening out the conference but this year I am bowing out.

Full disclosure: I am a lapsed ASES member and former board member and co-founder of an ASES chapter.

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What Does SolarCity’s Expansion Say About the Future of Residential PV?

The announcement went out yesterday and industry analysts and supporters have reposted, analyzed,reacted-to, and re-tweeted it all over: SolarCity continues to expand up through the mid-Atlantic and into the Northeast with the recentacquisition of groSolar’s residential division. This comes right on theheels of an announcement at the end of January from SolarCity heralding their arrival on the East Coast with anacquisition in Maryland. This is the most recent indicator of anindustry consolidation trend that has been on the rise since 2006-perhaps fittingly marked in part by groSolar’s acquisition of Energy Outfitters.

Debate about what this acquisition means to the future of theresidential solar industry has popped up in industry discussion groups, websites, and on the blogs of industry analysts. Reactions have been mixed but overall positive within the industry.

“From my perspective,” said Patty Kenyon, Managing Director at Vermont non-profit solar energy festival SolarFest, “having PV systems made more affordable and the process demystified is a benefit to the average consumer and therefore to the industry as awhole.”

In a recent interview before this most recent acquisitionannouncement, Jonathan Bass, Director of Communications for SolarCity,said the company “wants to focus on delivering good service locallythrough a local office.” As for their future growth goals, he expected“about 50/50 on organic expansion and acquisition.” He stressed, though, that SolarCity is committed to hiring locally and drawing on theexpertise of pre-established successful professionals who know themicro-regional markets on the East Coast as opposed to relocatingCalifornia-based employees.

According to a cached version of the website dating as recently asFebruary 11, 2011 groSolar was still advertising SunRun Home Solar Power Service as one of their residential offerings in Massachusetts, NewJersey, and California. However, sources at SolarCity confirmed thatthey would not be continuing to offer SunRun’s services in former areasgroSolar served. With groSolar’s departure from the residential market,SunRun’s New Jersey and Massachusetts remaining partners in each statehave a temporary competitive advantage.

There were signs of turmoil at groSolar as early as December 2010with the departure of Gaelan Brown, then-VP of Marketing. groSolar’sforray into residential solar has been fraught with complications sincethe get-go as the distributorship arm of the company in some cases early in 2006 supplied the very companies groSolar’s sales reps werecompeting against. Now, groSolar will narrow its business focus.

“This transaction allows us to concentrate fully on ourdistribution and commercial businesses, which are the fastest growingsolar markets” said Jeff Wolfe, CEO, groSolar in a statement releasedyesterday.

What does this mean for the future of residential solar? In theNortheast at least, there will be more choices for engagement with solar energy outside of direct-purchase or limited-area SunRun Home SolarPower Service offerings. However, it also spells out certain furtherregional consolidation and shakedown as smaller solar installers without financing compete against encroachment of larger companies who offersuch options. The Northeast will be an important market to watch as 2011 continues to unfold.

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Using the SunShot Announcement as a Real-Time PR Opportunity

The recent announcement of the SunShot Initiative from the DOE is not just an exciting moment for the solar industry, it’s also anopportunity for solar installers in every corner of the nation tocontact their local press with an exciting and positive story aboutsolar energy that can be associated with their company. So, if you are a solar installer reading this now: are you the local solar expert thatyour media call when they need to talk to someone about solar policy oranswer questions about solar incentives or even basic solar technology?If not, this is a great opportunity to start those relationships.

While the Hearst Corporation or Tribune-sized media may have alreadycovered the SunShot Initiative announcement in your area, it’s likelythat your local or regional paper may not have picked up the news yet.In many cases, these are actually much better outlets to target in aneffort to reach your potential customers. An announcement like this is a great opportunity to try out a public relations (PR) campaign thatconnects the expertise of your solar company leadership with an exciting news piece in the solar industry. PR is a low-cost and effective method for promoting news about your company to an eager audience thatincludes many of your potential customers. And with news media budgetsbeing slashed, providing reporters with material for great stories isoften welcome- especially about a topic as hot as renewable energy andeconomic growth.

In his book “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” new media marketer David Meerman Scott suggests and offers proven case studies showing that capitalizing onthe excitement of a breaking news piece or announcement related to anindustry is an effective method for capturing the attention of thepress. Here is how you can try it out for this and future media contact:

  1. Write your press release. Include the basic factsof the announcement and links to more information about the subjectstraight from the DOE website. Most importantly, frame it in context for your region and your company. How will it create jobs and grow yourbusiness? Possible headlines could read “Solar Company X predicts bright future in Region Y after DOE SunShot Initiative Announcement” or “Solar Company X expects more Region Y growth after DOE SunShot Announcement.” If you need help writing your release, check out examples online orcontract a PR professional to help you get the most out of your release.
  2. Research reporters. Which journalists are assignedto energy/environment stories? Using web search engines, you can oftenresearch their contact information so you can begin building a contactdatabase. Resort to a news tip line if you cannot find any contactinformation. When all else fails, call the reception at the media outlet to find out where to send releases and in what format they accept them. Create a spreadsheet or similar database of this information so you can track your campaign.
  3. Write your pitch. Customize a greeting for eachreporter you are contacting. Your pitch should include a compellingtitle, highlight the main points of your release, and offer an interview with a senior person at your company to discuss the information in therelease and the impact of the program on the future growth of yourcompany and the industry as a whole.
  4. Follow up. Make sure to follow up the next day.Keep track of the responses of the media you contact, including theresults of each contact (no response, offered to highlight- nointerview, feature interview scheduled, etc)
  5. Prepare for Interviews. Interviewing can beexciting but be careful what you say. A quote taken out of context canturn the whole story against you. Rehearse common answers to questionsyou expect you might receive. And if you don’t know the answer, offer to the reporter that you will research it and get back to them- resist the urge to guess or make something up as these efforts can backfire whenthey cross-reference your provided information. If you are preparing for an on-camera interview, dress nicely and avoid wearing hats or whiteshirts. Opt for a company-logo’d shirt if possible. Speak clearly,relaxed, and confidently. It’s common to ask for a “do over” if you flub an answer.
  6. Thank the reporter. After the interview and afterthe piece runs, remember to thank the reporter for their time andcoverage and offer to serve as their solar expert any time they needyou. Make sure you can follow through on that offer.

If your efforts in PR are less successful than you had hoped,consider writing an Op-Ed piece about the story in question for yourlocal paper or business journal.

And, of course, having an online component to your campaign providesadditional and longer lasting value. If you have a blog, (which yourcompany should consider for many reasons!), post thoughts and analysisof how the announcement affects your company there. Check out how JimJenal of RunOnSun has done just that. Then, promote your blog post through social media channels to encourage additional engagement. Engagement – not just broadcasting and walkingaway. Be ready to respond to blog comments or responses on Twitter orFacebook.

Is this starting to look like a lot of work? I know; you’re busyenough just trying to install solar energy systems. Having a strongpublic-relations-focused engagement strategy will help place you aheadof the pack as a thought leader and exemplary solar citizen. Considering other investments you could make in marketing, you might be surprisedhow well this one will return. Just remember: with breaking news, timeis of the essence. So what are you waiting for?

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What Solar Marketing Could Learn from the New “Advertainment”

In today’s marketing you hear a lot of buzz about capturing “thezeitgeist.” Zeitgeist is, simply put, a muddled-at-best understanding of the spirit of our time. A great example of this is how we end up withphenomena like the rise of the Daily Show and other news satire programs in response to rising distrust and skepticism in the mass mediacoverage of politics.

In marketing, having a feel for the attitudes and preferencesexhibited in the zeitgeist of different demographic groups feeds theengine that can be used to capture attention in viral marketingcampaigns. You might not think solar energy and zeitgeist in the samesentence, even though the result of adoption of solar energy is arevolutionary thing that truly captures these changing times.

Unfortunately, the messages of the solar industry are less-than-revolutionary. How can we turn this around?

On the whole, the face of the solar industry is still way too serious – mostly correlating itself with doom and gloom problems like climatechange and environmental destruction. This sets up the entire valueproposition of solar with negative messages that it then has toovercome. In a 2009 blog post for the Huffington Post, Mark Sinclair declared that this messaging, which is still beingprimarily used now in business-to-consumer solar marketing, as dead:

“Americans still believe that solar energy technology is tooexpensive, unreliable, and hard to purchase. […] To overcome thesemisperceptions and create a robust marketplace, the solar industry mustbegin to market solar energy like Coca-Cola sells soda or McDonald’ssells hamburgers. Essentially, the industry must create a greater demand for solar energy than exists now.”

Sinclair’s words ring even more true now in this still-tough economy.

The most salient point Sinclair makes is the importance of states,not solar contractors, in promoting solar energy to help enliven thelocal industry and promote the available incentive programs.

As more consumers are finding their way around ads and becomingskeptical of marketing tactics, having the marketing support of abrand-neutral third-party like a quasi-state agency running a solarincentive program driving a pro-solar campaign can be helpful. A risingtide lifts all boats, after all.

So, solar contractors, if you are in a state that has alesser-developed solar incentive program or an incentive program that is not well-known, consider crossing party lines for a few moments andjoin with your competitors in petitioning your rebate management agencyto do a little marketing on behalf of everyone. It is entirely likelythat they have not thought about doing this, don’t have the internalresources or experience to run a campaign, and/or will need somecontracted assistance in this process.

Sinclair also suggests a shift to demand-generating marketing likeCoca-Cola does. Coca-Cola does not regale us with technical informationabout the beverage flavor or amount of effervescence in its product. Itdoes not talk about costs. Coca-Cola’s marketing and branding focuses on creating an emotional connection with the brand. Thebusiness-to-consumer solar industry can learn a lot from this eventhough we are not marketing food products. What are the emotionalconnections we can create with our brands and services?

In another 2010 Huffington Post blog, Brian Keane of put together a Top 10 list of solar findings from market researchconducted by his non-profit organization that can help us better frameour messaging. This is a must-read and includes some incrediblyimportant demographic insights about prospective customer reactions tomessaging points.

Now, the execution. How do we promote the messaging we have worked to produce in a fun and engaging way that will appeal to new demographics? We started this article talking about working the zeitgeist. Today’szeitgiest revolves heavily around user-generated “social media.” Thesocial media landscape allows us to track trend trends in real time, and determine which ones have lasting value

The solar industry can learn a lot about how to reach new audiencesthis way. Through entertaining and engaging with our brands, we cancreate “advertainment” that has standalone value as well as replay andsharing value — a vastly different proposition from traditionalinterruption-based marketing.

I’ll close with an interesting example of advertainment. This style was popularized by a group of musicians, The Gregory Brothers, and their series “Autotune the News.” While perhaps not the style or delivery method needed for capturingcurrent demographic interest for the solar industry, it’s a lesson wecan take into our own marketing strategies to inform how we frame anddeliver our messages.

Original Article on Chaolysti

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Marketing the Residential Solar Niche

What do the following all have in common: Caller ID, spam-filters,ad-blocking on web browsers, TiVO, Satellite Radio, Hulu. Answer? Theyare all commonly used methods consumers are employing to control thecontent and messages that come to them. Until the day when some savvymarketer can figure out how to get everyone and their neighbor to make a solar energy systems as ubiquitous a part of the American dream as home ownership or a car, solar will continue to be a niche product. And asniche products go, many traditional outbound marketing tactics might not be as effective in customer acquisition.

Modern marketing is often separated into two camps: outbound andinbound. Outbound marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses onfinding customers by building brand awareness through advertising andpromotion. This would constitute your classic “interruption” marketing – direct mail, television commercials, magazine ads, etc. Inboundmarketing, once defined more as market research, has taken on a newdefinition through the availability of social media to promote acompany.

As renown social media marketer David Meerman Scott says:
You can buy attention (advertising – outbound marketing)
You can beg for attention from the media (PR – outbound marketing)
You can bug people one at a time to get attention (sales – outbound marketing)
Or you can earn attention by creating something interesting and valuable and then publishing it online for free: a YouTube video, a blog, aresearch report, photos, a Twitter stream, an ebook, a Facebook page.(inbound marketing)

Today’s inbound marketing involves creating effective frameworkswherein customers already interested in your products find you asopposed to your competitors. Compare this to a broadcast based strategylike a magazine ad. Thousands of people might see it, but maybe only asmall fraction of them are potentially qualified customers, let aloneinterested in your product. Focusing more time and energy creatingcontent that draws in potential customers who are both qualified andinterested in your product is the ideal.

More potential customers are turning to the internet to seek outsolutions to their problems, to find companies to provide a service,and, most importantly, to research the companies and products onunbiased terms via third-party review websites. From the perspective of a small company serving a residential niche market, inbound marketingtechniques can be the best cost of acquisition methods you can employ to engage with your potential customers. That’s not to say that alloutbound marketing techniques are completely outdated and useless. Infact, the best marketing strategies will rely on inbound marketing while selectively using outbound marketing strategies to funnel potentialcustomers to engage with inbound marketing. For example: sending out apress release that links to a blog post about a featured project thatthen links to a portfolio of similar projects which then links tocustomer review on Yelp from that project… you get the idea, right?Engage with content and funnel customers using real narratives about the way your product/service has solved real problems.

The following are a few suggestions for creating a strong inbound marketing strategy for your solar company:

Build a solid, easily navigable, and content-driven website. The crux of strong and effective inbound marketing strategy is awell-designed and conceived website that is properly search engineoptimized and frequently updated with new content that is penned with agenuine and jargon-free voice and easy to share in the social mediaspace (Facebook, Twitter, StumbledUpon, and other linksharing andbookmarking websites). Write the website using language that isapproachable, genuine, and conversational. The “how” of building thiswebsite and best optimizing it could be a whole series of blog posts onits own.

Keep the message simple and clear. Organize yoursite so that the top level information is simple to follow and ifreaders want to get into the nitty-gritty, they can drill down intogreater level of details. Resist the urge to use the many confusingacronyms and technical jargon that our industry bats around frequently.We might be able to talk to each other like that, but we can’t expectout potential customers to know a NABCEP from an SREC. Maybe save thatfor one of the techier “drill down” pages. Offer to educate, but keepthe top-level messages uncluttered.

Encourage and offer incentives for customers to write third-party reviews of your service. I have found that so many small solar installers that I begin to workwith do not close out their projects. Even if your installation was amessy process and fraught with delays and problems, properly closing out your project can help salvage the customer relationship, which iscritical to building the next part of your strategy: soliciting positive reviews. After all is said and done, circle back with your customer amonth (roughly a billing cycle) after the entire project has been online with a personal email and/or phone call to check in and see if they are happy or if anything needs to be attended to still. When everything issatisfactory, ask if you can send the customer a short online surveywelcoming their feedback and then link them to your company’s presenceof review sites like Yelp,, and Offer a premium at the end of the survey for filling it out such as animprinted mug or reusable shopping bag with your company’s logo or theopportunity to be put in a drawing for a valuable item like an iPod.This is valuable market research that your company can use to continueto improve its processes.

Flesh out and have fun with your Social Media Presence. Add photos to your Yelp profile, keep your statistics up to date, publish installation time-lapse videos on YouTube orinteresting behind-the-scenes looks at parts of the entire process ofthe project, and don’t just use your Facebook page or Twitter feed like a channel for press releases. Consider running Twitter or Facebook-onlycontests or specials. Repost content from SEIA,, ASES, and other solar and renewable energy-related news and advocacy groupsthat you and anyone interested in solar energy would find interesting,especially local and regional ones. And, please, if you are showingphotographs of employees working on installations make sure they are all using OSHA-compliant practices in the images.

Show Real Results. Are you installing monitoringsystems for your customers? See if you can anonymize the content foryour potential customers to see. Link to it in a prominent place on your website. In fact, build case studies of some of your finest work andembed the data there, too. Some of the biggest questions potentialcustomers bring to the table besides “How much does it cost?” is often“Does it really work?” Show them the numbers.

There are many other ways to develop a great marketing strategy tohighlight your company. Start with these and you will be well on yourway to higher quality leads. Next post, we’ll talk about how you canwrap all this up into a comprehensive year-long marketing strategy thatwill keep you well ahead of the game.

Image Copyright Standard Solar, Inc. 301-944-1200


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The Dangerous Resurgence of Guerrilla Solar

A new wave of do-it-yourself grid-tie solar products is hitting theDIY circuits. This author has seen a few examples of this at recentMaker Faire events and other green or solar events in the last severalmonths. The systems are generally very simple and utilize the newgeneration of commercially available micro-inverters or hacked smallin-vehicle inverters connected to a three prong plug end withinstruction for the user to plug it in to their wall outlet.Unfortunately, what many of these DIY-ers may not realize is the riskassociated with plugging a solar panel into an outlet in their homes asthese DIY systems suggest. Guerrilla Solar, as the term was coined a decade ago, is just as dangerous now as it was then.

In The Beginning, It Was All Guerrilla

In the later half of 1999, Home Power Magazine editors began featuring a“Guerrilla Solar” column in each issue in which an anonymized homeownerwould explain and show off their illegally grid-tied PV system. The rise of guerrilla solar activity was in direct response to the stonewallhomeowners were receiving from utility companies as they attempted tolegitimately navigate a net metering system that was not set up toaccommodate small scale backfeeds. In California around the early2000’s, the rolling blackouts began to hit after the electrical marketsderegulated. The first was on June 14, 2000 and the next round rolled in just a few months later at the beginning of 2001. Suddenly, there was a surge of interest inenergy-saving PV systems that would help homeowners keep the lights on.

The ability to easily grid-tie and net meter a code-compliantenergy-saving PV systems has helped create a viable solar PV industrythat now supports hundreds of thousands of workers and has attracted the attention of investment dollars. The industry continues to grow, theNational Electric Code Article 690 covering photovoltaic systeminstallations continues to evolve, and the regulation and inspectionprocesses have become more streamlined. In many states, in order toreceive cash incentives from rebate programs, homeowners must workthrough a licensed installer. Even so, many handy homeowners would still chose to install their own PV system if given the chance- some for thechallenge, some for the costs savings.

The New Guerrilla Solar

Many of the DIY solar products available are very small scale and are comprised of usually one 200 – 300 watt PV panel, a microinverter ormodified in-vehicle inverter, and a 120VAC plug. Many of the products in their marketing literature or websites even instruct that you plug itin directly to a wall outlet. Perhaps the most obvious place where thisinterconnection would occur would be in an outdoor GFCI outletconveniently located next to the panel, where it could be tilted against the exterior wall of the home in a sunny place in easy reach of anoutlet. Here is where the problems arise.

The Problem of “Just Plug It In”

There are problems present in many of these DIY designs:

  1. Suggested backfeed is inappropriate. Unless on adedicated circuit, electrical outlets- especially GFCI- should not bebackfed. GFCI outlets are especially vulnerable and will trip open andremain energized until the inverter ceases to operate. See W. Bower& J. Wiles “Investigations of Ground-Fault Protection Devices for Photovoltaic Power Systems Applications” for a great analysis of what happens in this situation.
  2. The inverters might not be UL 1741 compliant.Inverters that are not listed for use with PV or lacking grid-synchingcapabilities per UL 1741 leave stray voltages on the line if the gridgoes down. Inverters intended for in-vehicle use are inappropriate forgrid-tie applications since they do not conform to UL 1741, they do notproduce the quality of power necessary for grid-tie, and they requireafter market modification to plug in to an outlet.
  3. No net metering agreement, no buyback. If forwhatever reason a guerrilla-installed PV system is producing more powerthan is being used in the home, the excess power will not be bought back by the utility. Only with a pre-existing net metering agreement and aproperly UL1741 listed grid-tie inverter will the utility enter a netmetering agreement and pay for excess power production.
  4. These systems do not provide backup power. For thesystems that use UL 1741 listed inverters, they will disconnect if theycannot synchronize to the grid in the case of a power failure. Forsystems that do not have UL 1741 inverters, the power produced will beso small and so low quality that it was not be capable of running anyemergency household loads.

Consumers should exercise caution when investigating the potentialpurchase of any energy generating products. Look for whole-product ULlistings for any product that claims to be plug-and-play as if it werean appliance. Currently, none of the plug-and-play PV products arecommercially available and none have a UL listing as an appliance. Anysystem that produces electricity should be installed by a licensedelectrician in an NEC-compliant installation. And if it seems too goodto be true, it probably is.


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