The Copycat Syndrome, Innovation and Not Giving Up

Call it the copycat syndrome or marketing burnout wherein a company has a success with one product at which point every company in the space copies the effort leaving a market dotted with me-too products with little differentiation other than price. Eventually through this process value is suctioned out of the product or service, demand wanes, and consumers move on. It is almost impossible to satisfy consumer desire for the cheapest or most innovative product/technology/service/oh-heck-anything, particularly because in the end the equilibrium price may well be zero and innovation may be defined as simply announcing that something is innovative.

Sometimes, particularly with software or the internet (which move much faster than PV technology development), ennui with the copycat syndrome drives innovators to ask new questions and these questions lead to new directions and products – for example, something will replace apps and disrupt not only software but the tablets, cell phones and computers that are now set up as app delivery devices.  

Caution:  A PV system and its components cannot and should not be confused with the world of software, computers, the internet, tablets or apps. PV is, however, a disruptive technology and one of the things it disrupts is the utility business model.  This is why net metering and interconnection are hard fought gains for the PV industry and should not be discarded or compromised away.  Given the dire state of the global environment, eventually energy efficiency measures will be standard, accepted behavior and control of an individual’s energy future — which distributed generation (DG) PV is a perfect fit for — will become an accepted energy choice.

The lust for the next breakthrough has led to a disregard for the innovative process – which is at once lonely and interactive.  One good idea may come from many bad notions.  In solar, a technological or scientific breakthrough almost always comes after years of dedicated research with much iterative progress (and regression) along the way – good research of any kind is repetitive, exhaustive and often exhausting. Most good research is practiced for the love of the process, which involves asking the appropriate questions and establishing the appropriate systems to arrive at, perhaps, more questions.  The point is that innovation is symbiotic: that is, it is the living, breathing result of all the magical thinking (which is innovation) and hard work that went before and it lives to serve the ideas of the future.

In the decades-young terrestrial PV industry there are daily announcements of breakthroughs and innovations all of which are based on work that began decades ago and will continue for decades to come.  There really is no end game to increasing efficiency and decreasing manufacturing cost – these goals, along with myriad of research into materials et. al. will continue. The hunt for a big bang discovery that will change the face of the PV industry ignores the years-long timeline from lab-to-commercialization while unintentionally trivializing the hard scientific work that the industry is founded on. It just ain’t that easy – nor should developing an energy generating technology that will sit in the sun for 30+ years and reliably generate electricity be easy or quick.  

Developing innovative business models in an industry driven by incentives and challenged with downward price pressure and low margins is also not a walk in the solar park. To date, an innovative method of selling PV installations or the electricity from these installations that is specific to the true costs of the system while building in margin and value for all participants has not been developed.  Even solar leases are more about conventional energy and utility costs than the costs attributable to a solar electric system.  After all, there should not be an escalation charge on the sun’s fuel because though the equipment to convert the fuel has a cost, the fuel from the sun does not. Educating energy consumers about the value of owning the means of energy production (independence from volatile utility-rented electricity) is both difficult and worthwhile. 

The PV industry remains beset by challenges (many self-developed and self-propagated). Challenges include competing energy substitutes as well as the daunting task of overcoming entrenched electricity renting habits, not to mention continuing to deliver high quality products while struggling to prop up negative margins.  In the end … did you hear the one about carbon dioxide levels passing 400 parts per million?  — That’s reason enough to continue with the solar challenge. 

Lead image: Don’t Give Up via Shutterstock

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