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Marketing from the Ground Up: An Introspection from Solar Executives

The international energy crisis is a frustrating conundrum. When I took a course on climate change during my senior year at Penn State, Professor Brown said something that simultaneously gave me feelings of hope and despair: "We currently possess all the technology needed to overcome climate change, the challenge to overcome lies in the political sphere."

Solar seems like a brand new technology still working out the bugs in beta testing, yet photovoltaic (PV) cells have been around for over half of a century.  Ninety percent of Americans are not negative toward solar energy, yet we aren’t seeing much, if any, increase in the current one percent private ownership.  There is a big gap in where solar energy should be and where it currently is, and much of that gap is caused by failed or non-existent marketing strategies.

Delta Market Research, Inc. found an alarming lack of cohesion and comprehension within the solar industry in a recent study.  Owners, CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, and COOs of solar energy installers, PV manufacturers, solar energy consultants, solar associations and distributors of solar energy systems were surveyed.  A third thinks solar energy is a product, another third thinks it is a commodity, and the rest thinks it’s a service.  Seventy percent claim that their primary target is the homeowner.  How many homeowners in mainstream America have a roof full of PV cells?

There are many factors at play here, and you may think that there must be something else standing in the way, like affordability or unreliability or just simple inconvenience.  Before we get into an ever-receding pocket of excuses, let’s look at the solar situation in Germany. 

Germany is one of the world’s leaders in PV installations.  Because of their feed-in tariffs, solar energy accounted for three percent of total electricity produced in 2010, a figure market analysts predict will increase to twenty-five percent by 2050.  When builders create new homes they offer solar; when homes are sold, buyers are given the option to install solar panels.  It’s not only suggested by the government, but valued by the populous in general — renewable energy is something most Germans care enough about to do something.

The American solar industry seems to have two targets, the technocrats and the “green crusaders.”  The green people talk only to each other and are not mainstream.  Mainstream America does not even want to belong to this group — they will only be green if it is convenient. 

The disconnect lies in the failure to understand why the mainstream isn’t on board.  Where is the leadership in the solar industry?  Respondents did not come close to a consensus because there is no leader, and there is no understanding because there is no end-user data available for mainstream America. 

Delta Market Research Inc. has set its sights on unearthing why things aren’t as they could be for the solar industry.  Targets need to be profiled based on price thresholding and then selected.  Who would benefit enough from solar to purchase, and which targets would spend what?  What exactly drives sales?  Which distribution system works best? 

Twelve percent of respondents have gone out of business in the short time since we conducted our study.  The solar industry’s marketing strategy is on saving people kilowatt-hours.  Does your average American know off hand how many kilowatt-hours they use each month?  Do you?  Does Hershey measure their success by how many pounds of chocolate they produce?  No, they measure it in how many candy bars they sell.  They focus on the only thing that matters: sales.  The solar industry needs to do the same thing, and they cannot do it without end user data. 

Image: Solar panels on roof via Shutterstock

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