Blogs, Community Solar, Solar

Building Interest in Community Solar

Harvard Business Review is usually a trusted source for those that want to gain unique insights into specific problems. Their studies are often very in depth and provide all the details you need to get your arms around a subject. Recently, however, Joshua Pearce wrote an article about how solar energy is being held back by regulations, not technology. His piece had some good insights about how the industry has grown and how “plug and play” systems are a good alternative to higher-priced solar energy systems. Mr. Pearce, however, made no reference to what might be the very best solution for the residents and small businesses who want to participate in renewables — community solar.

It got me asking myself, “Why aren’t more people interested in community solar?”

In a word, education. A recent Shelton Group study showed that 14 percent of consumers nationwide were interested in community solar. When educated about the concept, that number shot up to 47 percent. The key, though, is knowing how to educate and about what.

In Pacific Consulting Group’s (PCG) national study, the No. 1 message that cuts through all the noise of electricity, renewables, solar and the community solar is that every homeowner and renter is eligible.

To Pearce’s point, so much of solar messaging to this point has been how wealthy people are willing to pay a premium for their own system that many consumers (and even small businesses) don’t think is a good fit for them. Beyond cost, however, potential consumers are also uncertain about not owning their own home, having a home that isn’t a good candidate for solar (e.g., shaded rooftop) or who’s allowed to participate.

Lastly, at least in terms of the messaging itself, we’re starting to see more consumers (especially Millennials) want features like tracking project output online, sharing their solar participation online and getting recognition for participating in a solar project. All of these are more easily done with a larger scale project like community solar compared to rooftop or other “plug and play” systems.

The average person moves 11.4 times in their lifetime. Most people will not invest in rooftop solar if they think they’ll leave their investment behind in just a few years. Portability attributes like a smaller initial investment, getting started immediately, canceling on short notice and taking the program with you are all program features PCG identified as selling points for community solar. Of course, these rankings vary by locale. In northern California alone, we see major differences between the areas near Oregon, San Francisco and the Central Valley. It’s always best to do the research for your specific area before choosing a messaging strategy.

Beyond just the message itself, PCG found two other components of a marketing or promotional strategy that were critical to success: the source of the message and the medium used to delivery it.

Unfortunately, there are some fly-by-night sellers of solar systems that have given solar power a bad name. Because of this, credibility is a major issue when consumers or small businesses consider investing in a solar system or other renewable arrangement. Despite not always being “popular” in their communities, the PCG study found that utilities were the best at overcoming the credibility hurdle. Whether you like them or not, your utility is not going to disappear overnight like someone who rings your doorbell promising a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to cut your electric bill.

Right behind utilities are nonprofit organizations. Perceived as an independent third party that can be trusted, nonprofits also carry a lot of weight. Rounding out the top three are solar organizations, like the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA). Spokespeople and neighbors provide little influence.

When it comes to media, surprisingly to me at least, placing messaging on the utility bill is most influential. This likely connects with the utility being a trusted source of information. Likewise, if the chosen message is about saving money and it’s stated by the utility on the utility bill, this confluence of important factors could have a major impact on getting a consumer interested in community solar. Producing a TV commercial about community solar is a distant second in the rankings and likely far more expensive than text on a utility bill.

Fortune and others have reported that solar prices are coming down and the solar industry is taking off. The market is there and will only get bigger if consumers are aware of the benefits of community solar. It’s time to leverage the research that’s already been done as well as customize research for our own specific locales to determine what messaging will help residential and business customers see what community solar can do for them.