Solar Power International 2012 has ended, yet there are still three core PR messages that have stayed with me almost three weeks later from SPI’s keynote speakers, Julia Hamm, Rhone Resch, and former President Bill Clinton.
Of course, all of these insights apply to other positions in our industry, especially those in leadership rolls. But I think as we start the last quarter of 2012 and begin our PR, policy, marketing, and advocacy planning for 2013, we should keep these three core messages in mind:
1) Julia Hamm: Find the win-win with utilities, but keep up the pressure. You can read a great summary of SEPA president Julia Hamm’s keynote thoughts with this interview with Renewable Energy World’s managing editor Jennifer Runyon. What most struck me in Hamm’s remarks was her suggestion that while we seem to be having battles with utilities now, ultimately, we’re going to have to learn to work together so that both solar and utilities can benefit from solar’s growth in the U.S. energy portfolio — and the world’s.
The problem here is our respective business models and what we do. Utilities not only generate energy, but they transmit it, and they do it fairly effectively. Solar generates renewable energy during the day, and in the coming years, will be able to cost-effectively store that energy with and without utilities.
Hamm urged the "solar industry and the utility industry invest in the development of a regulatory structure that allows for a new long-term, sustainable utility business model that encourages customers capable of installing solar to do so and rewards utilities that innovate and create a platform on which solar is fully leveraged for its strengths and which ensures the costs and benefits are fairly distributed."
While I agree with Hamm that solar and utilities must find ways to work together, solar marketers and communicators must keep up the pressure to urge consumers, businesses, and policy makers to demand this cooperation. Solar is still David. Utilities remain Goliath, and they will move forward at a very leisurely and lethargic pace unless the public lights a fire under their foot to take significant steps toward rethinking our solar-utility relationship. Without that pressure, it’s going to be energy business as usual with a slight tip of the hat to solar.
So bottom line take-away: Yes, let's find a way to work together, but to do so, we need to rally public support to make this cooperation happen sooner rather than later.
2) Rhone Resch: Solar must be on our best behavior. SEIA’s president Rhone Resch made a Tale of Two Cities “best of times/worst of times” analogy in his keynote that acknowledged solar’s growth with its current consolidation challenges. But that wasn’t what really stuck with me.
Resch also ominously compared solar’s modern exponential growth to the 1980’s boom and bust of the U.S. solar water heating industry. Part of that bust was due not only to energy prices coming down after the end of the OPEC oil embargo, but also to bad solar industry players….
In the 80’s, some solar marketers and sales reps over promised on solar thermal’s financial benefits. In addition, solar thermal manufacturing start-ups produced poorly made systems, and even with quality systems, inexperienced solar contractors did poor installations, resulting in many customers complaining about leaky roofs and systems. Finally, there were political scandals due to solar businesses taking advantage of 1980’s lucrative incentives.
While we are not the solar industry of the 1980’s, today’s solar reputation still suffers from those bad actors. On top of that residual legacy, we have the more recent (and undeserved) PR hit from Solyndra.
Resch warned that solar is not immune to repeating history, and I wholeheartedly agree. Before Solyndra’s failure became unjustly politicized, solar had a largely positive persona. Even today, post-Solyndra, a recent poll shows that nearly 90% of Americans support more solar. Great, eh? But it can all go away with one bad solar provider.
I think that Americans are smart enough to realize when an incentive program is being politicized by oil- and gas-supported politicians. But what Americans won’t stand for is gaming the system with available tax incentives, as happened in the 1980’s... and some say may be happening again.
In addition to adhering to the tax code, our industry must also offer fair and competitive pricing, excellent installation services, bonded warranties, and they must not make the mistake of enthusiastically over promising expected savings to residential customers.
As a bit of a warning shot, Resch brought up what turned out to be a relatively mild slap on the wrist from Consumer Reports, which warned about fly-by-night solar installers. I think there are very few of these bad apples, but it’s unfortunate that solar was mentioned at all from this trusted consumer advocate. In short, the solar and cleantech industry must maintain and earn our current “good guy” reputation with high ethical standards and high quality products and services.
As a solar marketer, I cannot express to you how important the industry’s good reputation affects sales and supportive solar policies. I realize that we can’t control the market failure of a new technology like Solyndra. However, we can and must control how we conduct ourselves with customers and the incentives that we receive from tax payers and rate payers. It only takes one bad apple.
So bottom line take-away: Solar must maintain our highest ethical standards to succeed and to maintain public support.
Bill Clinton: It’s up to the solar industry to control the message. First, if you didn’t see Bill Clinton speak at SPI, I must tell you how educated he was about our industry. He clearly spoke about solar's challenges, our history, our energy politics, and he also had some great general solutions.
From Clinton's perspective, many of our industry’s problems — and solutions — revolve around improving our industry’s poor communicating skills.
Clinton said, “Most Americans don’t know that the solar industry employs more than 100,000 people — more than the coal industry. They don’t know that renewable energy sustained an 8 percent growth rate through the worst years of the recession…and they don’t know that the United States pays $22 in subsidies to oil, coal, and nuclear power for every $1 invested in renewable energy…An enormous number of people don’t know that solar is affordable now, and there’s still a lot of underbrush to clear to get it installed.”
In other words, the solar industry needs to do a better job of communicating to the American public, as well as to our local and national representatives. Naturally, this requires more and robust marketing, PR, and solar advocacy.
Perhaps more importantly, Clinton also faulted the solar industry for Solyndra's being a PR failure. He said, “The industry made a mistake in not defending itself.” He added that while the Department of Energy loan guarantee program has been a great success, that we should have made the argument that you can’t quit after one mistake. "Get the basic facts in front of the American people.” He also advised that we get facts out about oil subsidies, saying that the U.S. has paid oil subsidies since 1916, “but they sink dry wells and still get the tax credit.”
As much as I love the what Clinton said, I have to disagree with him that the industry didn’t defend itself. We certainly tried, but conservatives and oil PR machines have tremendous resources to spin an isolated failure into the twisted reflection of the entire solar industry. We're out gunned. That being said, I agree that need to be more effective and aggressive with the limited resources that we do have.
Clinton advised: “Make sure the candidates know what you’ve done and what policy helped you do it. Provide visible manifestations of progress. And do what you can with what you’ve got right now.”
That’s terrific solar PR and marketing advice, and according to SEIA, we’re over 100,000 workers strong who can help. While relatively few of us are solar marketing professionals, we all have computers and email, and most of us have Facebook, and other social networks. By just half of us using these basic tools, we could make a huge difference for our solar businesses, as well as for our policy agendas.
Bottom line take-away: Increase our solar educational efforts with the public and with politicians, including our own friends and social networks.
So, with all of the above in mind, I urge every solar person reading this post to share these three core messages with solar colleagues, and …to UnThink Solar.
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