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SEIA Report: U.S. Solar PV Installation Growing Fast, Becoming “Mainstream” Power Source

Posted By Lowell F. on September 7th, 2014


The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is out with its Solar Market Insight Report for the 2nd quarter of 2014, and it’s overwhelmingly “sunny” news. Here are a few highlights:

  • “The U.S. solar market had another strong quarter in Q2 2014. Photovoltaic (PV) installations reached 1,133 MWdc in Q2, up 21% over the same quarter in 2013.”
  • Solar power accounted for 53% of new U.S. electric generation capacity in the first half of 2014. That put solar ahead of natural gas (30%) and wind power (14%).
  • Utility PV procurement is surging, as “utility-scale solar project developers have amassed more than 3 gigawatts of new contracts over the past twelve months” This is a result of solar’s “increasing cost-competitiveness, along with a variety of new procurement mechanisms.”
  • The “residential solar juggernaut continues,” and “its momentum shows no signs of slowing.”
  • The top five states for solar PV installation in the 2nd quarter of 2014 were: California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey and North Carolina.
  • Solar power in the U.S. is increasingly becoming “mainstream,” as “solar PV has moved light years ahead of where it stood back in the first half of 2012″ (e.g., utility solar PV cumulative installations have quadrupled).
  • Utilities are starting to jump into the residential solar power market: “the two major utilities in Arizona (Arizona Public Service and Tucson Electric Power) are now the first utilities in the U.S. to formally propose plans to own rooftop solar on residential customers’ homes.”
  • As you can see in the graph above, U.S. PV installations will hit 6.5 GW in 2014, up 36% from 2013.  PV installations are projected to surpass 8 GW in 2015 and 12 GW in 2016.
  • One cloud in the otherwise bright outlook: “looking ahead, systemic challenges to growth loom both in the near term (e.g., the recent U.S.-China tariff decision) and medium term (e.g., the federal ITC’s scheduled dropdown at the end of 2016). Nevertheless, the first half of 2014 showcased innovative financing strategies, evolving utility business models, and solar’s increasing economic competitiveness with fossil fuels, all of which offer encouraging signs of the U.S. market’s ability to weather barriers to growth and further push solar PV into the mainstream.”
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China “smart in the way it has incented private industry to build out solar power capacity”

Posted By Lowell F. on August 25th, 2014

According to a new article in OilPrice.com, China is busy “cutting its dependence on coal, oil and natural gas and replacing it with solar at a breakneck pace.”

According to a 2014 report by Hanergy Holding Group, China installed 12 GW of new photovoltaic (PV) generation capacity in 2013, a massive 232 percent increase over the previous year. Compare that to Germany, whose new PV capacity dropped 56.5 percent, and Italy, where new solar power additions fell by 55 percent.

Why is China racing ahead when it comes to solar power growth, while certain other countries are falling behind? Simple: the way China incentivizes solar power. A few key points form the article explain what’s going on here:

  • Policies aimed at boosting market demand for solar: “While Germany and the rest of Europe have scaled back government incentives to install solar, in China, increased targets for solar power generation have been backed by programs to boost market demand. A feed-in tariff passed last year amounts to a subsidy of between 14 and 16 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour, and applies to both ground-mounted and rooftop panels. Feed-in tariffs incent renewable energy producers by allowing them to charge a higher price for their electricity than the retail rate.”
  • Financing and investment innovations: “The Chinese government is encouraging financial institutions to offer discounts on loans and is encouraging the formation of PV industry investment funds among insurance companies and trusts, Bloomberg reported this month.”
  • A smart and highly motivated country: “There is no doubt that China’s push to increase solar power is being driven by an acute and pressing national problem – air pollution. Solar offers a way out of the competing pressures China is under to fuel economic growth and also arrest deteriorating air quality. But the Chinese government has also been smart in the way it has incented private industry to build out solar power capacity. As long as China’s solar competitors do not have the same environmental imperative, they will likely continue to lag behind China in new solar power additions. For that reason, the solar growth story is likely to be centred in China, at least for the foreseeable future.”
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Key Takeaways from Solar Webinar: “Selling Quality in a Price-Sensitive Market”

Posted By Lowell F. on June 25th, 2014

Earlier this afternoon, I attended a highly informative webinar for solar installers on “Selling Quality in a Price-Sensitive Market” by Enphase Energy (Judy Ash) and UnThink Solar (Tor “Solar Fred” Valenza). I thought a few key points were worth passing along.

  • There’s a tremendous amount of price competition in solar power right now, and while some of that reflects positive trends like falling soft costs, another part of it reflects eroding margins.  In this environment, the question is how to market a premium-quality product and not just get into a destructive “race to the bottom” that’s all about price?
  • With more than 60% of residential solar customers getting only 2 quotes or fewer, it’s crucial that you be the first company the customer calls. The most important thing in that regard is good “word of mouth,” particularly by your customers to their friends, neighbors, etc.  One way to encourage this is of course to provide a great product and service. In addition, you can offer referral incentives.
  • The bottom line is that, while you need to be in the ballpark on price, quality of installation experience and product is crucial.
  • According to Tor Valenza, the goal should be to build a “mountain of trust” about your company and/or brand. Customers want solar panels that will last a long time and work right, but also pay attention to your appearance online and offline, communications and interactions with them, and a “certain je ne sais quoi” – something unique about your company that makes you who you are.
  • Trust can’t be built in 10 minutes, it takes continual effort over time. You should be conveying that you’re all about quality solar that will last a long time in all your marketing, online and offline. For instance, you should stress how long you’ve been in business, how many installations you’ve done, the quality brands you install, community certifications, etc.
  • Valenza strongly recommends  putting up a video about the installation process, the warranty, and other important information, as it makes the whole process “less scary” to potential customers. Valenza also recommends using social media in an honest, transparent way to interact with actual and potential customers and to help build trust.
  • Your company definitely needs a good-looking, and of course technically up-to-date website that makes a good first impression. Same thing with your marketing materials, installer/sales uniforms, case study images and videos.
  • Possibly most important, in Valenza’s view, is to always keep in mind that “people relate to people.” This means doing things like putting a bio and photo of all your company’s employees, having everyone do at least one blog post, being involved in your community (e.g., sponsoring a Little League team), etc.
  • Finally, on the “Je ne sais quoi” quality, Valenza stresses that every company has its own personality, something unique or different about it, something that sets it apart, and should work to convey that in an authentic manner.

A few key takeaway messages from all this include the following: 1) use consistent messaging; 2) have others say it for you (e.g., third-party validators); 3) add “proof points” (e.g., Better Business Bureau endorsements); 4) convey professionalism and excellence in everything you do; 5) use social media effectively; 6) be involved in your community; 7) work over the long haul to establish trust and maintain relationships; and 8) promote your “Je ne sais quoi” in a way that “humanizes your company, gives you an identity that people can relate to.” Do all that, and you may not guarantee success, but you’ll certainly increase your chances of success by a significant amount. Good luck!

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Solar Energy Marketing Expert David Briggs: Solar’s Key Challenge Now is to “truly out-compete traditional energy”

Posted By Lowell F. on June 25th, 2014

David Briggs has long-standing experience in the solar industry, including three years at a cleantech communications firm and three years as Marketing Manager at microinverter manufacturer Enphase Energy. Briggs now works as Director of Marketing at mounting systems provider IronRidge. Recently, Briggs took a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk to us about an important topic for the solar industry: how best to engage and market to your customer base, and ultimately to “truly out-compete traditional energy.” We greatly appreciate Briggs’ insight-filled responses to our questions.

1. Tell us a bit about your background in marketing renewable energy technology and services? What has your approach been, what specifically has been most effective about it?

I’ve always worked with solar manufacturers, but each one was very different—first with cell and module companies while at Antenna Group, then with the microinverter maker Enphase, and now with IronRidge, a mounting systems company. There’s surprisingly little overlap between these topics.

But despite their differences, I’ve always tried to bring the same philosophy to marketing—be direct and demonstrate a clear impact.

In an industry changing as fast as solar, “new ideas” are a dime a dozen, and “new” is rarely the most important part of any product.

It’s more important to address the product’s impact on the customer. This requires marketers to really understand the customer’s perspective, then reduce and simplify their message until it practically speaks for itself.

2. In his book, “The Thank You Economy:  How Business Must Adapt to Social Media,” Gary Vaynerchuk makes the argument that for businesses to succeed in the age of social media, they need to really listen to customers, to establish actual relationships, to “humanize” themselves, to demonstrate that they care.  Do you agree with Vaynerchuk’s recommendations? Have you personally used any of this in your marketing work in the renewable energy industry?

Yes, I believe this is essential to every company’s long-term success. But it’s not really a new concept. Vaynerchuk simply shows that social media gives this concept more potency and immediacy than ever before.

Listening to your customers and “humanizing” your company really comes down to empathy. Are you able to connect with your audience and feel what they feel? The more you do, the more your message (and your product) start to reflect it—they become simpler, clearer and more familiar.

And to Vaynerchuk’s point, listening and empathy are also the foundation of a dialog with your customers that can result in product improvements and critical insights for your long-term business roadmap.

The only difference I would point out between Vaynerchuk’s perspective and that of a solar manufacturer is that we cannot build products purely to excite customers; solar products have to perform over a long period of time in harsh environments. This requires all changes to be engineered and tested very, very carefully.

Still, solar customers are like any other—they demand constant improvement. This requires manufacturers to walk a fine line between making advancements and remaining careful. Add to this the extremely competitive manufacturing landscape, and you have all the conditions needed to destroy a company for being sloppy (and we’ve seen it happen in solar many times already).

In short, solar manufacturers must listen to their customers and push themselves to both stay on track and get ahead. Distractions and detours are death.

3. Guy Kawasaki’s book, “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions,” also gets at the humanization issue. Kawasaki’s view is that the key to selling anything is to “enchant” people. And that, in turn, is all about emotion: a) are you likable?; b) are you trustworthy?; c) do you have a great product/service/idea?  In your marketing work, have you found that Kawasaki’s thesis rings true, and if not, how specifically do you see it differently?

I haven’t read his book, but the word “enchant” immediately makes me think of “wow factor.”

All too often, marketers confuse “wow factor” with the thing that initially grabs a customer’s attention. While there are lots of gimmicks that can turn heads, “wow factor” comes from the core of what you do, and customers typically experience it after you’ve got their attention.

For marketers to focus only on getting attention is truly dangerous. It comes off as phony and makes the whole company look shallow.

Good marketing needs to address the entirety of the customer experience, extending beyond “step 1” of the journey to address everything from learning, to purchasing, to using.

An expression I like here is, “The experience is the product.”

4. Do you feel like the clean energy industry is ahead or behind the curve when it comes to creating a powerful, compelling narrative for its products and services? How about in terms of pushing back against the massive, well-funded assault by the fossil fuel industries against solar, wind, etc?

I believe the solar industry is on the verge of becoming a real player in energy.

What got us here were huge leaps forward in understanding our customer and improving our offering to match their needs. Specifically, I’m talking about the emergence of financing to make solar just as convenient and affordable as a utility bill (in the case of distributed generation) or just as profitable and “bankable” as a power plant (in the case of utility-scale).

But, just because we are now in the ballgame doesn’t necessarily mean we are poised to win. The challenge now, in my opinion, is to truly out-compete traditional energy.

A lot of people in solar believe this means being more “cost competitive” than traditional energy, but I think this is too short-sighted. Cost is only half of the equation; “benefit” is the other half.

If we want to start beating traditional energy, we must start solving problems that traditional energy simply can’t address. When we start to offer customers something truly new and remarkable—not just “saving 15% or more” —that’s when things get REALLY interesting.

To provide a concrete example, electric car makers have begun partnering with solar installers to sell both things at once. This synergy makes sense because the customer’s electricity bill will likely be going up, and solar is a great solution to that problem. But, this partnership is also quite limited in scope. It’s just a “lead generation” activity, and there’s no real integration of the two offerings.

Now, if you took the concept a step further, you could combine a company like Better Place with a company like Solar City, and you would be attempting to consolidate two different “energy budgets” (gasoline and electricity) into a single, unified service. Not only does this double the potential market size (in terms of revenue), but it also doubles the number of customer problems you can solve.

This type of integration of technology, service and finance can be taken in countless direction, many of which have the potential to establish fundamentally new paradigms in energy, with a potentially MASSIVE impact.

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AWEA, SEIA Leaders: Wind, Solar “two affordable, reliable, and business-friendly solutions” to Meet EPA Rules

Posted By Lowell F. on June 18th, 2014

We just wanted to highlight this morning’s op-ed in The Hill by Tom Kiernan and Rhone Resch – the leaders of the American Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association, respectively, about how wind and solar are “two affordable, reliable, and business-friendly solutions” for America to meet the proposed new EPA carbon pollution rules. Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed, with which we concur 100%.

Some members of Congress worry we could hurt our economy by working to meet the EPA’s proposed standards. They may not have heard the good news about these newly affordable solutions at hand.

While there’s no single solution to meeting the much-needed goal of reducing carbon emissions, wind and solar power are two of the biggest, fastest, and most cost-effective ways to meet the EPA’s proposed rule. Governors all across the country already know how they grow economies and create jobs – and a strong majority of Americans support scaling up these clean, homegrown energy sources.

That’s why we urge all members of Congress to look to wind and solar power as leading solutions to help meet America’s future energy needs.

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