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Got solar?: Branding the energy transition at SPI — complexity, emotion and Duck Dynasty

The key to forging a deeper connection between solar and the general public — one that will motivate political commitment and action, as well as sales — is keeping the industry’s message simple, emotional and aligned with customers’ values.

The current state of the solar industry has long been measured in statistics such as growth rates, cost reductions and penetration levels, that is, what percentage of any one area’s power is generated by solar. But at this year’s Solar Power International (SPI), Abigail Ross Hopper, President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), turned the focus onto the industry’s social messaging.

Poll after poll shows the public loves solar, Hopper said at a general session on the second day of the conference, but the industry needs to bridge the gap between such generalized support and people’s willingness to take action for pro-solar policies.

Emotion often outweighs facts, said marketing expert Omar Johnson, who has led successful branding campaigns at Beats by Dre and Apple.

Talking solar marketing at SPI: (left to right) Hopper; Jen Psaki, former White House Communications Director, Matt K. Lewis, columnist at The Daily Beast and Johnson.

“When you look at the brands that are winning in the world today, marketwise, they tie emotion into what they are doing,” he said during a panel discussion with Hopper. “When you put the emotional flag in the ground, you start to talk to people in a very different way and . . . you move people toward your brand.”

Another panelist, Matt K. Lewis, a conservative columnist for The Daily Beast, agreed that emotions are integral to political momentum, but added that identity and culture are also core drivers.

“Faith, tribe and community, all these things are not what we think about when we are putting together a marketing campaign,” he said. To get conservative Trump voters to support solar, he suggested, the industry should think about creative product placement, such as having the Duck Dynasty folks install solar on their homes.

Certainly, the combined wisdom of marketing and media pros such as Johnson and Lewis apply to solar as much as any other commodity.  Could a Duck Dynasty solar installation lead to conservative solar clustering — a common phenomenon in which after one home in a neighborhood goes solar, others follow?

However insightful, this discussion misses a much more significant measure of the industry’s maturity — solar’s continuing evolution as part of a larger, more dynamic transformation in the way people produce, use and pay for electricity, in the United States and globally.

The energy transition encompasses a range of complicated, but compelling stories, and this bigger picture is reflected in SPI’s own growth from a single-focus solar trade show to the more inclusive North America Smart Energy Week. This year’s trade show — all 250,000 square feet of it — included Energy Storage International, the Smart Energy Microgrid Marketplace and Hydrogen + Fuel Cell North America.

For the most part, the general public does not understand the complexities or potential impacts of the technologies on display or the issues that were debated in Anaheim. Nor do consumers often have an active voice in this conversation.

Bridging this gap is a key challenge for the solar, storage and clean technology industries — one that is being addressing through a focus, not only on messaging, but on compelling and user-friendly technology.

Checking out the cool booths

Each year, as I look out over the trade show floor at SPI, I wish that one day of the event were open to the public, to let them see the scope of the industry and the changes underway that will, in fact, have a significant impact on their lives.

Walking onto the floor at SPI is always an exercise in sensory overload and wonder. All the big solar and storage companies — panel, battery and racking manufacturers, developers and builders — have huge, slick booths, showcasing their products and technologies. It’s hard to walk by without stopping for at least a few minutes to examine a particular type of panel or look at pictures or videos of completed projects.

But, cruising the floor, one inevitably arrives at a booth that is mobbed, with people crowding around technology displays and meeting tables, talking intently with company representatives. This year, at least two of those booths were showcasing innovative and very cool technologies aimed at making solar, storage and other energy management devices easy to use for individual consumers.

Standing room only at the SolarEdge booth

SolarEdge, the Israeli-based inverter manufacturer, was rolling out a suite of products combining advanced inverters, storage units and an electric car charger, with online monitoring that can be accessed from a tablet or cell phone.

At the sonnen booth, the main attraction was the German storage company’s sonnencommunity, a whole-house system with solar, storage and seamless energy management technology. When each home in a community has such a system, electricity can be traded from one house to another, or aggregated to provide power or grid support for local distribution systems. And again, homeowners can monitor the system through an online app.

Yotta Solar’s potential game changer — a solar panel with storage attached

While smaller and less mobbed, the booth for Yotta Solar was equally exciting. The company has developed a small, 35-pound storage unit that can be attached to individual solar panels — a potential and super user-friendly game changer if ever there was one. The units are now being tested in a few demonstration projects, investors are being sought, and a company representative said, commercial distribution could begin next year.

Flash points

The level of debate at SPI is another sign of the industry’s maturity and, while often wonky, had its compelling moments. The long-accepted public narrative is that utilities and the solar industry are always at loggerheads, with the economic survival of one or the other hanging in the balance. In fact, the energy transition has been a catalyst for increasing collaboration and partnerships between utilities and solar, storage and other clean technology developers.

Flash points still exist, for example, around access to energy markets for distributed energy resources — such as solar, storage, electric vehicles and other smart energy systems — their value to the grid, and appropriate compensation structures.

One of the more lively and heated panel discussions at SPI centered on PURPA — the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act — a law originally passed in 1978 to help small, independent power producers break into wholesale energy markets. The law requires utilities to buy power from these producers under standard, long-term contracts, and has been a key driver for solar growth in some states, particularly North Carolina.

The question for the panel was whether and how PURPA should be reformed to reflect current market conditions, such as the declining cost of solar and the flattening of energy demand. But, PURPA supporters in the audience asked, is it PURPA, now 40 years old, that is out of date, or how investor-owned utilities have earned money for the past 100 years — via rate-based investments in power plants, power lines and poles, and other infrastructure?

Ultimately, the utility representatives and solar developers on the panel agreed that changes may be needed on both sides of the issue, and the search for new solutions will be most effective when all stakeholders are involved. In North Carolina, negotiations between solar and utility stakeholders resulted in a compromise. Last year the state passed a law that reduced the size of projects qualifying for PURPA standard contracts — from 5 megawatts (MW) to 1 MW — with larger projects going to a competitive bidding process.

At the end of the panel, I watched as a solar developer shook hands and talked excitedly with a utility executive, urging that they stay in touch and work together.

The point here is that smart marketing — however emotional or culturally rooted — can only take you so far. People learn best — and become more open to change — when they are engaged in compelling dialogs and stories. The energy transition on display at SPI had plenty of both. The industry’s challenge is to keep the conversations and stories fresh, so that consumers of every demographic understand they are active players in an unfolding narrative.

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