You are here

American Solar Energy Society

Subscribe to American Solar Energy Society feed
American Solar Energy Society
Updated: 2 days 8 hours ago

Amping up Solar Adoption: Insights into Human Behavior

Tue, 01/02/2024 - 08:51

Why is it so hard to convince others to change? Moving people from thought to action can prove extremely difficult even when the benefits of behavioral adoption are made clear and are an obvious improvement to personal, social and environmental systems. 

We tend to believe that with enough information about the benefits, behavioral change will naturally follow. This approach is known as “information deficit.”1 Sadly, it isn’t overly effective. Neither is the loss-communication approach of the environmental movement with messages like “take shorter showers,” “drive less” or “waste less.” Evolutionarily, humans are loss-averse, as loss equals hardship and scarcity, and we shy away from this type of communication.2, 3   

If information alone is insufficient to change behavior and messaging around giving up our current lifestyles doesn’t work, what can be done? It turns out that while humans are complex beings in many ways, there are some consistent tried-and-true techniques that work in motivating engagement in environmental behaviors. Let’s explore some of these techniques, centralized around Community-Based Social Marketing,4 a framework with roots in Social Influence5 and Diffusion of Innovation theories.6

In prompting behavior change, we first need to select our behavior. The process for this concerns identifying the environmental need and the associated behaviors that can address that need. A behavior is then selected with the highest level of impact, penetration (level of adoption among your target audience), and adoption probability.7, 8 For the sake of simplicity, we will choose solar PV adoption as our behavioral goal. 

Once we have our behavior and our target audience in mind, we then need to figure out the barriers and benefits of adopting the behavior (using solar PV) and the perceived barriers and benefits of their current behavior from the perspective of our target audience. This information can be gained through observation, literature review, focus groups, individual interviewing, surveying, or any combination of these, depending on your time and resources. 

Let’s imagine what some perceived barriers and benefits for solar PV adoption might be for the average homeowner. Barriers might include finding credible providers, experiencing cost uncertainty (quote variations), encountering upfront expenses, facing the uncertainty of available subsidies, dealing with the uncertainty of how solar agreements with power companies work, and choosing between a string inverter and a microinverter. Perceived benefits could include grid independence (self-sufficiency), electrical- and utility-bill offset, and decreased fossil fuel reliance.

For the current behavior, perceived benefits of depending on a fossil fuel-dominated grid might include the comfort and time gained in not having to change anything, the familiarity of how billing works, and the lack of high upfront costs. Perceived barriers could include dependence on the grid, increasing costs of electricity and associated bill increases, and dependence on earth-heating fossil fuels. 

Note that completing your barrier-benefit analysis by researching your target audience is extremely important as it could turn out, for example, that they are not at all concerned about fossil fuels but highly concerned about energy independence. In this example, a marketing campaign that focuses on moving beyond fossil fuels might be highly ineffective and a waste of money. The more specific you are about who your target audience is and their unique barriers and benefits, the better.

Once you know your barriers and benefits, the next step is designing a marketing campaign that maximizes both the perceived benefits of the target behavior and the perceived barriers of the current behavior, while minimizing the perceived barriers of the target behavior and benefits of the current behavior. The Community-Based Social Marketing framework outlines strategies or tools that may be employed to do this, including social norms, incentives, prompts, commitment, convenience and communication. 

Table 1. Barrier-benefit chart for residential solar PV adoption.

 

Social norms are extremely powerful and influence the accepted behaviors, values and beliefs of your target audience. Find respected leaders within your target audience who support or have already adopted solar PV and make their support and/or adoption visible. 

Incentives include those that are tangible (such as rebates and calculations of potential bill reductions) and those that are intangible (social approval and praise). There is a point of diminishing returns on incentives, so choose incentives that maximize adoption before surpassing a point of diminishing return. 

Prompts are helpful to remind your target audience about behavioral engagement. These should be as close in time and space to the target behavior as possible and are often used for behaviors that are repeated (such as bringing bags to the grocery store) as opposed to one-time (installing solar PV).   

Commitment creates a sense of accountability. Humans like to be consistent, and if we make a commitment, especially one with witnesses, we are more likely to follow through with our stated intentions. Written commitments tend to be more powerful than verbal ones and both should be voluntary in nature. 

Convenience entails making the desired behavior as easy and accessible as you can. This includes reducing barriers and simplifying processes involved in adopting the target behavior. Effective communication (crafting persuasive messages, choosing the right channels such as social media, holding community presentations, etc.) is also an essential part of a successful marketing campaign.  

Humans are complex beings and require additional considerations to increase the likelihood of behavioral adoption, despite the temptation for us to assume that providing facts about the benefits of solar PV adoption will effectively prompt change. As you work to convince others to adopt solar PV, hopefully Community-Based Social Marketing9, 10 will help you increase your level of success!

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/Suldovsky 
  2. https://tinyurl.com/SchneiderSang 
  3. https://tinyurl.com/KahnTversky 
  4. McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. New Society Publishers.
  5. https://tinyurl.com/CialdiniGold 
  6. Rogers, E.M. (1962). Diffusion of Innovations. Free Press of Glencoe.
  7. https://tinyurl.com/CBSMPrimer  
  8. McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering sustainable behavior: An introduction to community-based social marketing. New Society Publishers.
  9. Ibid.
  10. https://tinyurl.com/CBSMPrimer

About the Author

Roslynn McCann is a sustainable communities professor in environment and society at Utah State University. She applies communication techniques and social marketing tools to foster environmental behaviors around land (conservation and waste reduction), air (quality and climate change), food (local), water (quality and quantity), and energy (efficiency and renewable energy). 

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

AI in Solar Marketing: A Balance Between Tech and Touch

Tue, 01/02/2024 - 08:47

Overreliance on artificial intelligence tools and chatbots like ChatGPT, Bard, Dall-E and others is a losing game. But that doesn’t mean solar companies should turn their backs on this new technology. Solar companies are all about embracing emerging tech, right?

Energy Circle, the digital marketing company where I work, focuses exclusively on contractors, businesses and organizations in the clean energy and energy efficiency sectors. We’ve been experimenting heavily with AI tools since 2022.

We’ve always operated under the guiding principle that great marketing requires real-world expertise and a human touch. Adding AI into our toolbox doesn’t change that. Any solar company curious about artificial intelligence should know that there are plenty of ways to benefit, but only if you strike the right balance between human and robot.

The Benefits of Using AI in Solar Marketing AI Tools Save Time

It’s a common scenario for solar contractors: they’re already strapped for time, knowing that they should be out on a job site or helping solve business problems, but they’re also trying to carve out time for the marketing that they know they’ll wish was done six months from now.

AI can do a lot of different tasks — and it can do them quickly. Think about what it would be like to do all this marketing 15% faster. It might only save 10 or 15 minutes with each task, but those things add up quickly, and a 15% improvement is a conservative estimate.

For example, there are AI tools out there that could help a company design a new website, write all of the content for the site, and plan out a marketing strategy for the next 12 months. The team could do all of this in an afternoon.

Here are some examples of actual marketing work that AI could help a solar contractor do:

  1. Making the Sales Cycle More Efficient
    AI can help an existing sales team do more, creating efficiencies within the sales process, supporting design, helping to draft proposals, and responding to customer reviews. AI apps can even record sales meetings, creating transcripts and summarizing key points for future reference. These transcripts aren’t always 100% accurate, but the technology is constantly improving and now they are usable for many use cases.
  2. Creating Content
    AI can write copy for blogs or webpages, draft emails, create custom images and videos, design infographics, write up social media posts, and generally help solar companies brainstorm and draft all different kinds of solar content.
  3. Analyzing Sales and Marketing Data
    AI is really good at analyzing lots of data. It can help forecast sales, take audience lists and segment them into different groups for marketing or outreach campaigns, and much, much more.

This all sounds pretty abstract, so let’s give a few actual examples of how this could work in action.

Example #1: Segmenting historical customer data to build new marketing campaigns

Let’s say a sales team has the idea to create a new marketing campaign targeting past customers who installed solar panels but not solar batteries. The staff want to reach out to only those customers via email and a physical mailer, but they don’t have a sophisticated CRM platform like Salesforce — all they have is a spreadsheet with columns of customer data.

Having to manually parse through that spreadsheet could take a long time. But AI tools like ChatGPT can make data analysis surprisingly fast. Through the use of the Code Interpreter plug-in (or third-party plug-ins like Noteable, which are designed to do similar types of data analysis), the team can upload that spreadsheet and quickly get segmented lists of email and mailing addresses to start campaigns.

Example #2: Forecasting month-by-month sales for 2024

Maybe a manager is sitting down to review their company’s performance for 2023. Again, they have lots of data detailing sales that go back years, but how can they use this data to better prepare for next year?

Using the same data-analysis tools that we mentioned in Example #1, they can input their historical sales data and ask ChatGPT to quickly help them find sales trends or make predictions about sales in 2024.

ChatGPT can analyze this information. And it can also take that raw data from spreadsheets and create customizable charts and graphs to use in future sales presentations to the company. And it can do all of this in a fraction of the time that it would take a human.

AI Gives Solar Companies a Competitive Edge

Smaller solar companies have often struggled to stay competitive with the solar giants that have more resources and larger marketing budgets that they use to stay ahead of their competitors. AI can level that playing field for smaller, local installers and up-and-coming contractors.

But the benefits aren’t just for underdogs. If a bigger company already has a healthy marketing budget, AI tools can help the staff do even more with it.

The Risks of Using AI in Solar Marketing

We’ve been painting a pretty rosy picture so far. But before companies drop everything and convert 100% to AI, they should be aware there’s a less-enticing side to this technology as well.

AI Is Good — But Not Great — At What It Does

Remember when I told you just how much AI tools could do in a single afternoon? Well, I didn’t say anything about the quality of that work. ChatGPT might give a company a starting point, but it’s not going to provide the kind of unique and emotionally intelligent content the team needs to connect with homeowners and differentiate itself from its competitors.

Solar is a big-budget purchase — and homeowners don’t choose contractors lightly when making that kind of investment. The content needs to demonstrate that the contractor knows what they’re talking about and understands customers’ pain points.

Fake News

AI can confidently give completely false information — in the information technology industry, this phenomenon is called hallucinations.1 And it does so in a way that makes one think it knows what it’s talking about, so unless you already know the information is wrong or you fact-check, it’s easy to be fooled. AI tools have a surprisingly hard time telling you, “Sorry, I don’t know.”

Just one example: This morning, I asked ChatGPT about the solar tax credit and whether I was eligible for this incentive. But ChatGPT is only trained on data up to January 2022, so it didn’t know (and couldn’t tell me) that the Inflation Reduction Act overhauled and extended the tax credit in 2022.2

The AI Revolution Is Going to Usher in a New Era of Content Marketing (and Raise the Bar)

As more and more AI writing is published, the bar for “standout” content will be raised.

Google uses E-E-A-T (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness) guidelines to refine its ranking algorithms.3 Essentially, the more content meets these guidelines, the more visible it is likely to be in search results.

Google has gone on the record to say that the (“appropriate”) use of AI-generated content is not against its guidelines.4 But that doesn’t mean AI-generated content is automatically going to rank. AI tools don’t always follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) best practices and, given the rate at which SEO best practices change, may not be able to keep up with them.

Plus, AI content itself often falls somewhere between “okay” and “good,” not “great,” and that type of content is unlikely to rank well regardless of who has written it.

Striking a Balance: Making AI Work Better with Human Elements Start with AI, Don’t End There

It’s a good analogy to think of AI like a competent personal assistant. There are many tasks for which a manager might use an assistant, but odds are they aren’t entrusting them with important work without signing off on it or giving notes first. AI is the same way.

  • If you use AI to generate copy, edit and revise it to make sure it meets the same standards you would hold for your own writing.
  • If you use AI to analyze data, make sure you don’t stop all analysis yourself. AI might come up with something that wouldn’t have occurred to you (or arrive at the analysis more quickly), but that doesn’t mean you don’t have takeaways that AI couldn’t develop.
  • If you use AI to brainstorm ideas or marketing strategies, see what you can add to or change in the results that take them from passable to exceptional.
Fact-Check, Fact-Check, Fact-Check

If you don’t know enough to verify the accuracy of a piece of writing from AI, you need to fact-check it, no matter how big or small a claim.

This is especially true in the solar industry, where regionality and policy play a huge role.

For example, ChatGPT often touts the benefits of net metering when asked to write about the benefits of solar. But, as any solar contractor knows, net metering isn’t available everywhere and it works differently in different places. If companies don’t edit their content to include specific information about their regions, they’re not providing information that’s relevant to their customers (or true).

Companies Should Make Sure They’re Telling Their Story About Their Businesses, Speaking to Their Customers

AI tools know a lot, but here are just a handful of things we’ve seen through experience that AI is not very good at talking about:

  • Any kind of writing that depends largely on current information, including:
    • Energy incentives (like tax credits, solar renewable energy credits, modified accelerated cost recovery system tax depreciation, and other local rebates and incentive programs that may be subject to changes)
    • The latest products and tech specifications from specific manufacturers
    • Solar policies (like updates to net metering in your state; for example, ChatGPT doesn’t know about Net Metering 3.0 in California)
  • Brand voice (Is a company a solar tech expert? Is it the go-to company for solar + storage? Is it a veteran-owned business? Is it a B-corp with clear mission and value statements? It’s difficult for AI to authentically capture the way a company “speaks” online without extensive training and prompting.)
  • A company’s history (Has it completed more installations than any other local solar company? Does it have lots of specific experience with off-grid solar or solar carports? Is a solar installer a local celebrity? Again, without lots of training, AI tools have no way of knowing what sets a company apart from any other solar installer.)
  • The unique characteristics of a company’s customers and its service area (How does the seasonal weather and geography in the service area affect the types of solar arrays the team installs or how they install them? The marketing messaging will likely be very different if homeowners in the area tend to be more environmentally motivated than savings-focused or vice versa.)

We use the output of ChatGPT and other AI tools as a framework to build on. Then we make revisions — lots of them — as we think of additional ideas. The final product is always dramatically different (and better). We save some time in the early stages of the process, but never sacrifice our voice or cut corners on quality.

In our experience, this is the best way companies can integrate artificial intelligence into their marketing work and create results that are customized to their businesses and, most importantly, effective.

Unlike the sharp rises (and equally sharp falls) of digital assets like NFTs5 or the trendy, invite-only social audio app Clubhouse,6 AI technology is here to stay, and it’s only going to become more and more essential to any future solar marketing work.

That doesn’t mean that every solar company that embraces AI will see success. But the contractors and organizations that find the right mix of human and machine, leaning into the strengths of each component, will be the ones to truly capitalize on this rapidly advancing new technology.

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/bdhez5ah
  2. https://tinyurl.com/vsnvpbta
  3. https://tinyurl.com/5yk6t369
  4. https://tinyurl.com/ubc7yzck
  5. https://tinyurl.com/2ezp8zad
  6. https://tinyurl.com/3a3rcbuv

About the Author

Abby Yolda is the director of solar and digital marketing strategy at Energy Circle. With a background in public policy and digital marketing, she has over 15 years of experience working with contractors, businesses, nonprofits and trade associations across the solar and energy efficiency sectors.

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

Why You Should Care About Energy Efficiency — Even After Going Solar

Tue, 01/02/2024 - 08:41

As a residential and commercial solar salesperson for many years, I would often tell prospective customers that it was silly for them to pay for solar panels to generate electricity that they shouldn’t have been using in the first place. It was an acknowledgment that, in a perfect world, they would make their homes more efficient and reduce their base electricity usage before ‘going solar.’

At the time, the discussion about energy efficiency was a way to help customers decide what size systems they really needed. If budgets were tight, smaller, less-expensive systems might suffice and still offset 100% of electricity usage after some simple and relatively inexpensive upgrades. Most still went with the larger systems, possibly thinking that it would be too hard, expensive or unimportant to make the effort.

Now, I see that as an opportunity — both for individual solar-property owners and for our larger efforts to reduce emissions and accelerate the clean energy transition. The ~4 million solar homeowners around the United States are the perfect constituency to change minds and increase demand for energy efficiency and electrification products and services in their communities.1, 2

Millions of solar buildings today are inefficient and many additionally still use fossil fuels for space and water heating and cooking. Making those buildings more efficient will free up already installed solar electricity to be used on loads previously run by fossil fuels. Additional electrification efficiencies will free up more solar energy to power EVs and reduce transportation emissions.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), “Nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are attributable to America’s 130 million homes and commercial buildings, which use 40% of the nation’s energy and 75% of its electricity for power, heating and cooling. But today, buildings waste up to 30% of that energy.”3

And yet many U.S. property owners don’t consider energy efficiency investments (many of which can be much cheaper than going solar) worthwhile, either before or in conjunction with installing solar. After all, once the solar panels are installed, they generate electricity from sunlight — free electricity once the system has paid for itself in savings. So why worry about energy efficiency? How much energy or money can really be saved anyway?

The savings potential is huge. “Making energy efficiency upgrades… can save 5-30% on your monthly energy bill,” the DOE said.4 That can definitely add up.

Solar owners have a clean energy source already paid for and producing clean energy. Making those properties more efficient immediately increases the percentage of loads being offset by the solar energy. Plus, making a building more energy-efficient after solar panels are installed allows property owners to recoup their money faster and save more money over the lives of their solar-energy systems.

Additionally, if gas is still used for cooking or space or water heating, solar panels will not reduce that portion of the energy bill. But weatherizing the building will reduce leaks, increase comfort, reduce gas usage and carbon footprint, and further reduce energy expenses. For businesses, lowering these heating bills means lower operating costs and more money left for other business expenses.5

Electrification also leads to higher efficiency. The International Renewable Energy Agency said that “heat pumps achieve efficiency four to five times higher than condensing gas boilers” and “electric vehicles (EVs) are two to three times as efficient as conventional gasoline and diesel cars.”6> This is a key driver behind the Electrify Everything movement, which promotes the electrification of space heating, cooking and other appliances as well as transportation.

Replacing existing fossil fuel-based water heating or space heating appliances at the ends of their lives with new high-efficiency heat pumps further reduces energy usage. The success and recent expansion of Maine’s heat pump-rebate program highlights not only that heat pumps work in all climates, but that transitioning from gas or oil heat to electric is easy and cost-effective when consumers and the workforce are knowledgeable about the benefits.7

In the case of solar homes, the new systems can then be operated using excess solar energy. Excess solar generation can also charge EVs, avoiding gasoline usage and costs and reducing vehicle maintenance costs and emissions as well.

If there is still excess solar-generated electricity after all of that, in many states it is also lucrative to export excess power back to the grid.

On a broader, global scale, energy efficiency is a key strategic component of any roadmap to keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C and avoiding climate catastrophe around the globe. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), “Energy efficiency is called the ‘first fuel’ in clean energy transitions, as it provides some of the quickest and most cost-effective CO2-mitigation options while lowering energy bills and strengthening energy security.”8

Wide-scale energy efficiency efforts across all economic sectors reduce fossil fuel demand across the globe. These efforts can allow us to reach peak fossil fuel usage earlier, stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure and meet all new energy needs from new clean energy development. This is key to staying on track with net zero goals.9

Widespread adoption of energy efficiency also reduces congestion on the grid, improving grid reliability and security, and reduces demand, decreasing energy prices.10

In September, the IEA released an update of its 2021 report “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.” Two years later, this update optimistically reports that solar PV installation and electric vehicle adoption are keeping pace with their initial estimates of required implementation to stay below or near the 1.5°C goal.11

It is also heartening that the IEA estimates 80% of emissions reductions required by 2030 can be met solely with clean energy, energy efficiency, electrification and methane reductions. These are all things we know how to do today with technologies that are being deployed on a wide scale already.

However, the IEA also reports that a doubling of the rate of energy efficiency improvement implementation (and a tripling of clean energy adoption overall) by 2030 are required to keep that goal reachable.12 Energy efficiency paired with solar (and other clean energy sources) truly is key to reducing carbon emissions.

To help meet those goals, the historic federal Inflation Reduction Act has created rebates and grants to make energy efficiency upgrades more affordable. The Biden Administration’s newly announced Affordable Home Energy Shot is designed to reduce the costs of upgrading buildings further.13 Some states also have additional energy efficiency-rebate programs in place.

These incentives increase the lifetime savings of those upgrades for property owners but also make financial sense on a wider economic scale too. It’s been proven that they more than pay for themselves and are good for the economy at large.

In a 2020 study by the public utility commission in my home state of Pennsylvania, it was calculated that “on average at full scale, for every dollar invested in efficiency, Pennsylvania would accrue $1.22 in economic benefits.” It was also found that “across all scenarios and all EDCs [Electric Distribution Companies]… EE [energy efficiency] is a substantial and cost-effective resource.”14

At the national level, in 2021 the DOE found that the United States has the potential to cost-effectively reduce its electricity use by the equivalent of 16% of estimated baseline usage in 2035. The cost of saving that electricity was found to be much lower than the cost of generating it in all 50 states, with 12%–21% savings per state.15, 16

The average cost of saving electricity was found to be 2.6 ¢/kWh, making it a valuable low-cost energy source in its own right — 30% cheaper than electricity generated from gas and 75% cheaper than electricity generated from coal. For the economy, widespread energy efficiency adoption means enormous savings across all sectors.17

It would also lead to huge reductions in peak demand, which is key to facilitating a transition to clean energy by reducing usage of expensive, fossil fuel-intensive peaker plants and reducing energy-storage requirements.

Almost 20 years ago, the visionary founder of RMI, Amory Lovins, realized that energy efficiency could change the accepted calculus that the transition away from fossil fuels would be hugely expensive for society. Instead, he argued, energy efficiency upgrades across all sectors of the economy would lead to reduced costs and increased profits for all, with the added bonus of reducing carbon emissions and facilitating the transition to clean energy.

Lovins said, “Using energy more efficiently offers an economic bonanza — not because of the benefits of stopping global warming but because saving fossil fuel is a lot cheaper than buying it.” This has only become more true in the ensuing decades due to higher fossil fuel prices and huge leaps in technological efficiencies with precipitously dropping costs.18

While large-scale governmental policy adoption and corporate action are key to increased energy efficiency adoption, individuals and local home and business owners must play a part in changing consumer behaviors and shifting market demand. Solar-property owners are natural recruits for this effort. With solar-energy systems already installed, we can play a part in the larger efforts to drive energy efficiency forward.

We must demand better insulated, more efficiently designed homes and buildings. We must demand more efficient appliances. We must electrify everything, converting our homes’ systems. We must demand HVAC contractors, plumbers and other building contractors offer these products and conversion services. We must purchase electric vehicles. And we must talk about why these actions are important and how they’re saving us money and making an outsized and much-needed contribution to fighting climate change.

Note: Since this article was written, at COP28 130 countries agreed to triple their renewable energy capacity and double their energy efficiency improvement implementation by 2030. This commitment is in line with the IEA projected requirements mentioned in the article that are necessary to continue on a path toward reduced emissions and minimize future global temperature increases.

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/5h36j85x
  2. https://theroundup.org/solar-power-statistics/
  3. https://tinyurl.com/435jejfm
  4. https://tinyurl.com/43dvjb24
  5. https://tinyurl.com/yj6jryej
  6. https://tinyurl.com/yub4fsap
  7. https://tinyurl.com/3w8xac4x
  8. https://tinyurl.com/3cdtpuwm
  9. https://tinyurl.com/2p887bxt
  10. https://tinyurl.com/2p9dfkk3
  11. https://tinyurl.com/2p887bxt
  12. Ibid.
  13. https://tinyurl.com/49fcna36
  14. https://tinyurl.com/4nhhpfc4
  15. https://tinyurl.com/2y6bc27v
  16. https://tinyurl.com/m8earjda
  17. Ibid.
  18. https://tinyurl.com/4u9m46u2

About the Author

Dara Bortman is a member of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) Board of Directors and a life member of ASES. Until recently, she was also co-owner and operator of a solar-installation company (which she recently sold). She understands that our greatest challenge is ensuring a just, equitable energy transition.

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

Closing the Communications Gap in Renewable Energy Adoption

Tue, 01/02/2024 - 08:36

Renewable energy adoption around the world is picking up speed, fueled by maturing technology, massive federal incentives and increasing cost-competitiveness with fossil energy. Still, renewables make up only ~27% of the energy generated across the United States.1

A key factor slowing down progress is a lack of clear, coherent communication. Renewable technology and the policy surrounding it are complex subjects to begin with. And the discourse on these topics is riddled with jargon and acronyms.

Take the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), for example: The policy signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2022 created generous incentives around renewables. But when you Google ‘what does IRA stand for,’ you come up with information about investment accounts, not Biden’s climate policy. Indeed, 71% of U.S. citizens still know little or nothing at all about the climate incentives offered by the IRA over a year later.2

There’s no shortage of attempts to close communications gaps like these. The U.S. Department of Energy and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy both have published robust energy-vocabulary glossaries, for example. And there are a plethora of online resources breaking down challenging energy concepts. But modular definitions like these don’t lead to true understanding of how consumers can and should adopt climate-friendly solutions.

Instead, the onus is on the companies providing the solutions to not only define but also contextualize the complex energy terms, technologies and policies at play and explain plainly the lifestyle benefits they offer. With thoughtful approaches to everything from product launches to storytelling around recent advancements in technology, renewable energy adoption can accelerate into 2024 and beyond.

Recasting the Conversation About Residential Renewables

Solar energy provides a huge opportunity to help mitigate the 20% of greenhouse gas emissions created by private residences in the United States.3 But consumers seem reluctant to make the switch: just 5% of U.S. homes run on solar4 and only a fraction of those have home batteries to store excess power for future use.

When Lunar Energy launched its first solar-powered solution for the residential market this summer, the company addressed this public-perception challenge head-on.5

Consumer education was a huge part of Lunar Energy’s communications strategy. That started with differentiating its product — a key component of which is a battery — amid players in the broader home solar and battery market, such as FranklinWH and Tesla.

These companies had championed the popular narrative about solar batteries’ ability to prevent outages and maintain energy freedom during times of power unpredictability.

In contrast, Lunar Energy carefully crafted and amplified a narrative where consumers not only maintain energy freedom, but also have the ability to actively participate in the clean energy movement with the company’s all-in-one hardware and software solution.

Messaging about Lunar Energy’s software and its ability to seamlessly integrate distributed energy products, like home batteries, onto the electricity grid was folded into its media strategy and reflected in several articles, including ones by Canary Media and CNET.6,7

In addition to the product launch, Lunar Energy announced a partnership with Sunrun to operate tens of thousands of batteries across a dozen virtual power plants (VPPs) across the country.8 To continue to bring consumers along and demystify VPPs, Lunar Energy built a simple, clear website explaining how its software works and breaking down the role of VPPs.9

Knowledge-Sharing to Bring a Niche Industry Forward

While many cleantech companies like Lunar Energy are challenged to set themselves apart amidst fierce competition, others are introducing a brand new category.

Nevada-based Redwood Materials, founded in 2017, is part of the still-nascent but critically important battery-recycling industry.10 The company recycles materials like lithium, nickel and cobalt from used batteries from electric vehicles (EVs), creating a circular supply chain that reduces the need to source new raw materials and the cost of producing batteries.

Given the general lack of awareness of the intricacies of the battery-recycling industry, Redwood Materials takes a transparent approach to its communications to bridge the education gap.

For example, in a blog post published earlier this year about the team’s annual progress, Redwood Materials broke down some of the key opportunities, challenges and progress it has found or made in the realm of battery recycling.11 The piece carefully reviews everything from the chemistry of the types of batteries the company collected to policy factors that influence its success in recycling batteries.

By explaining these different factors, the Redwood Materials team helps educate future investors, policymakers and consumers alike about the value of battery recycling and EV adoption for the future. The work that Redwood Materials is doing and directly communicating to various audiences is an example of how transparency and education can move the clean energy industry forward in the journey toward net zero.

As the public continues to familiarize itself with battery recycling, Redwood Materials has future opportunities to hone its communications strategies, including chances to clarify complex language and terms associated with battery materials and chemistry.

Setting the Record Straight on Carbon Removal

Renewable energy companies, like many in the broader climate tech industry, often find themselves combating misinformation. And when it comes to pushing valuable climate solutions forward, a strong communications strategy in the face of misinformation is critical.

Take Climeworks for example. While Climeworks operates adjacent to the renewables industry, the company’s recent actions to clearly define terminology readily used in the industry demonstrates the impact that thoughtful communication can have.12

Climeworks creates machines powered by renewable energy that suck carbon dioxide from the air, helping to remove historical CO2 emissions alongside emissions reductions.

But carbon removal is a complicated, nuanced field that is often conflated with point-source carbon capture. Part of the challenge are arguments that carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is too energy-intensive or that it distracts from emission reductions targets. This has the potential to undercut the value of carbon removal as a climate solution in the broader public consciousness.

Climeworks took action this spring, publishing an industry letter supported by dozens of organizations and influential individuals across the carbon-removal landscape.13 The piece called for a distinction between emissions reductions and carbon removal, which has a different and complementary role to play in the fight against global warming.

The statement offered a clear and direct point of view that not only outlined the company’s clear position on an important issue but also inspired the rest of the industry to take action in line with its principles.

The letter caught the attention of influential climate media, which put it in context alongside previous academic research that argued “unpacking net zero goals this way would help ensure that investments in carbon removal are truly additional to essential investments in emissions reductions.”14

These efforts to clearly articulate the principles that leading CDR companies like Climeworks adhere to are critical to instilling trust among buyers and partners as this industry looks to reach massive scale in the coming decades.

Communicating to Drive True Climate Impact

While the last year saw improvements in renewable energy adoption, the United States continues to fall short of emissions targets.15 Still, the momentum we’ve seen shows progress. According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of U.S. citizens believe that developing alternative energy sources should be a priority.16

Uncertainty about the transition to renewables is holding back progress, in part due to a lack of education about these solutions and their impact on the public. Less than a third of U.S. citizens say they are ready to phase out oil, coal and natural gas completely.17

Altogether, this spells a massive opportunity for companies to move the needle and accelerate adoption. If we are to further accelerate the adoption of clean energy solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change, language, positioning and transparency matter now more than ever.

Lunar Energy and Climeworks are customers of the authors’ company, LaunchSquad.

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/264e9y9c
  2. https://tinyurl.com/3bp4nxvn
  3. https://tinyurl.com/2j6acj6x
  4. https://tinyurl.com/mrddnxf3
  5. https://tinyurl.com/26fj7evb
  6. https://tinyurl.com/ybuvhbvf
  7. https://tinyurl.com/yu7vu9um

About the Authors

Matt Calderone is a senior vice president at LaunchSquad, where he helps lead the firm’s work in climate, energy and cleantech. He is passionate about telling stories about how technology is changing business and impacting society. He helps edit The Cooler, a Substack focused on climate tech communications.

Amanda Molaro is a director at LaunchSquad working with companies across climate, energy and cleantech that are changing how we live our daily lives — from the way we power our homes to how we reduce food waste.

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

Public Relations Guide to Newsworthiness

Thu, 12/28/2023 - 13:17

Often, companies seek public relations services with the goal of securing top-tier national news coverage — the desire to see their names in lights. But many cleantech B2B companies’ news revolves around commercial announcements with no clear tie-in to broader market trends that merit national coverage.

Your ability to earn media coverage depends on several factors. In the public relations profession, the pre-internet term was “newsworthiness.” At our firm, we call it “attention-worthiness.” The important lesson I want to share is: The bar for newsworthiness has gotten much higher. If you want to get attention, you have to find something interesting to say to your audience; that may not be all about you.

There are three main drivers of attention: Who you are, what you say and how you say it. I will break down those factors and offer tips to increase your chances of earning attention through content that expands beyond company announcements and adds insight to the larger marketplace.

The three main drivers of attention:

  1. Who you are (your platform and credibility)
  2. How you speak (your style)
  3. What you say (your content)
Attention Driver #1: Who You Are — From What Platform Do You Speak?

There are prominent individuals, such as Elon Musk, who can generate news while they sleep. Literally.

We found an article in the well-respected The Wall Street Journal on Elon Musk’s sleeping habits and back pain.1

Typically this happens when an individual speaks from a platform so well-established that it influences the world at large. Examples of this include Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, whose market-moving comments are cataloged excessively.2 Another example of an attention-driving platform: The Vatican. We found over a dozen articles on the topic of Pope Francis’s footwear.3

Unfortunately, most cleantech companies cannot rely on their platforms alone to capture attention.

Attention Driver #2: How You Say It — This Is Essentially Your Flair

The best example of flair is the Kardashian family. Whether you love them, hate them or don’t have an opinion, it is easy to see the Kardashians’ flair. By that, I mean their bold style: attitude, drama, entertainment. Their ability to captivate attention has kept them relevant in pop culture for 20 years. News stories are written about ordinary things they do that would never be news if you or I did them.

We found a story about the socialite Khloe Kardashian wearing a fanny pack and another about her daughter making a homemade pizza.4, 5

The reality is that most cleantech news companies don’t want to engage in drama or Kardashian-like behavior — and that is understandable, since they want to be taken seriously. But keep in mind that drama is what some journalists are looking for, so if you have a good business reason to make a bold statement, that may get you some attention.

Attention Driver #3: What You Say — Your Content

This is the attention-getting tactic that most cleantech companies can use to excel and the one we recommend our clients focus on.

Every week, cleantech companies secure big sales, make new hires and attract investments. This is great news for your company that you can share and be proud of.

But standard commercial announcements don’t typically merit prestige media coverage outside of some industry trade publications – unless you’ve got a “wow factor” or a major superlative.  The “first ever,” the “biggest,” or anything unique could help you make the cut.

How do you stand out? That depends on how risky and interesting you are willing to be.

National journalists get hundreds of emails every day. Attention goes to the most interesting stories, which might involve some level of risky, controversial or bold behavior. Another level of scrutiny is — is this new? Are you repeating the same old thing, or do you have something new and different to offer?

The closer to safe and boring you are, the less likely you are to garner national media attention.

Your company must decide how risky and interesting you want and are able to be. There is no right or wrong answer. There is a balancing act in finding what is appropriate to say to your audience and what might spark attention. Risks have consequences.

When you gain national media attention, you may impress your customers, but you might also attract critics or inform competitors.

You will also face the de facto journalist instinct of ”telling both sides of the story.” The chances of a national news story being 100% positive news about your company — while possible — are slim. More likely, the story will aim for objectivity by including your point of view as well as other viewpoints.

Good stories thrive on tension. Most national media want to appeal to a broader audience, which means using classic storytelling techniques. If you aren’t familiar with narrative frameworks, it’s worth exploring the seven story types.6

Some story types, such as the quest or overcoming the monster — also known as “David and Goliath” — are probably familiar to you. The quest involves a plot where the hero begins a journey to success. Think about how you could use that narrative framework. Are you the hero, or is your customer the hero?

Overcoming the monster highlights a main character who aims to destroy a greater evil — the classic underdog we love to root for. Interesting storylines include drama, pain points, and flawed or dynamic characters who undergo a transformation.

Achieving national-level interest sometimes requires a willingness to be vulnerable or speak to uncomfortable truths. Many reporters want to analyze difficult challenges or expose a weakness. If there is a controversy brewing, they want to dig in and explore.

You rarely hear a story that reads: “Once upon a time, a company did something amazing and became successful without ever encountering any challenges, and everything was always awesome with no problems. The end.” Why? Because it’s boring!

So how can you get attention with your content?

Tip #1: Use data, trends or polling to say something interesting about the marketplace

Leverage data from your business to say something insightful about the market. Can you look within your internal analytics to identify and illustrate a broader market trend? Another effective method to gain attention is by conducting a poll7 or other research that goes beyond your company’s internal operations and focuses on your customer base or industry peers.

Tip #2: Personify your announcement with someone who experiences the impact of your news

TV and local news reporters love to personify news. To do this, find a real person who is directly affected. This could be a new hire who has a much-needed job thanks to the expansion of your factory or a veteran who benefits from the product or service you are selling. You need someone who is willing to share their personal story to illustrate the impact of your news.

While this approach typically requires more effort and shifts the focus away from your company, it’s usually worth it. People identify with people over companies. Providing a real example makes your news relatable and interesting.

Tip #3: Create a top-notch media kit 

Newsrooms are short on staff, so help them out with a compelling media kit. Include well-chosen, high-resolution images, with descriptive image titles and clear captions. Hire a videographer to capture video footage of your product or solution in action — we call this raw video footage b-roll. Showcase your people doing what they do best — accessible, visually compelling media will elevate your chance of securing coverage.

These tips won’t guarantee attention, but they’ll greatly raise your odds. Find useful things to say to the marketplace. Determine how risky and interesting you want to be and help a reporter out with compelling, easy-to-access-and-understand visual media.

The final takeaway: Tell your audience something interesting they don’t already know. Resist the urge to talk only about yourself. Instead, think about how you can speak to the bigger picture and provide helpful insight on topics your customers care about.  A skilled public relations person can work with you to bridge from internal subject-matter expertise to external value and help you generate the attention you seek.

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/5bam57a5
  2. https://tinyurl.com/5bhh7uas
  3. https://tinyurl.com/prfjce8y
  4. https://tinyurl.com/yu8kz8e4
  5. https://tinyurl.com/2cvsejss
  6. https://tinyurl.com/yc79rmcd
  7. https://tinyurl.com/29ce95uk

About the Author

Melissa Baldwin is the senior vice president of Tigercomm, a clean-economy marketing communications firm. Her clients include solar manufacturers, developers and energy service companies. She creates breakthrough communication plans that branch out from incumbent strategies and harness renewables’ power to disrupt the dominant energy sector.

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

Refugees Adapt to Fuel Scarcity: So Can the World

Thu, 12/28/2023 - 10:29

In Kakuma Refugee Camp, Grace* is preparing dinner for her family. The smell of spices hangs in the air; the tomato stew and rice are nearly done. What makes tonight’s meal special is not the menu but how it’s made. This is the first meal Grace is cooking without burning charcoal or wood, instead using nothing but the sun and her brand-new solar thermal cooker.

A solar cooker absorbs sunlight and transforms it into thermal energy, generating the temperatures necessary to cook meals, pasteurize water and dehydrate food. There are myriad models, most of which use shiny or reflective surfaces to direct light through pieces of glass or plastic, creating a greenhouse effect in a space where it is absorbed by a dark cooking pot.

The heating process is not unlike the feeling of returning to a hot car parked in the sun.

What makes solar thermal cookers so elegant is that, without the aid of batteries or photovoltaic cells, many can reach temperatures of between 150°C (302°F) and 200°C (392°F) or higher, depending on the model.

Grace’s cooker is a ULOG solar box oven whose acquisition was made possible thanks to a collaboration between Solar Cookers International (SCI) and Ecomandate Foundation. The cookers are fully subsidized, though participants contribute their own cookware and commit valuable time for training.

SCI is a nonprofit organization that supports solar-cooker adoption through advocacy, capacity-building, and research. Ecomandate is a community-based organization based in Kenya that delivers solar-cooking solutions to communities in East Africa. SCI and Ecomandate have been working together to empower residents of Kakuma Refugee Camp since 2018.

Kakuma was selected primarily because of fuel scarcity. Most residents depend on charcoal or firewood that they purchase at unaffordable prices. In an interview with program staff, Grace recalled exchanging food rations for charcoal, “Four kilos of rice for a sack of charcoal, which doesn’t last the week.” It is a heart-wrenching choice between food and the fuel needed to cook it.

Grace* helped demonstrate solar cooking and trained new project participants. (Credit: Ecomandate Foundation)

 

According to the International Energy Agency, 2018 was also the year that global energy demand grew at nearly twice the average rate, with 70% of that demand being met by fossil fuels and energy-related emissions hitting a high of 33.1 GT CO2.1

The planet also saw a series of climate disasters including drought in Argentina, heatwaves across Europe, floods in India, and the most destructive wildfire on record in California.2

Meanwhile, SCI and Ecomandate were assembling a program that took advantage of clean, renewable solar energy, one thing Kakuma residents have in ample supply. The program would position refugees at the forefront of the transition to renewables while simultaneously supporting health, safety and financial security by enabling the use of free solar energy for cooking.

From the start, SCI and Ecomandate understood that the projects’ success depended on using best practices, starting with production. Cookers are commissioned locally to meet specific needs, taking into consideration family size, ease of use, durability, local climate and traditional cooking customs. Product feedback from users is vital and informs future rounds of programming.

In addition to being manufactured to meet local needs, the University of Nairobi stove testing center assessed the solar oven using SCI’s Performance Evaluation Process, which automates testing methods published by the International Organization for Standardization.

Local production of high-quality products not only supports the economy but also deepens technical expertise within the region, mainstreaming solar cooking and positioning the project for long-term success.

The program is also informed by careful community research and ensures that participants receive the training and support they need to be successful. So when Grace first joined the program in early 2022, she began by participating in a needs assessment, after which she was selected for the training course.

While Grace was learning how to prepare traditional dishes like the corn porridge known as ugali using solar thermal energy, the world was dealing with an energy crisis worsened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The sudden supply disruption simultaneously underscored the urgency of transitioning to renewables while also pressuring nations to put climate goals on hold as they scrambled for energy sources, some releasing unprecedented oil reserves or even turning to coal.3

People in countries around the world struggled with higher energy prices, changed their habits,4 and were sometimes forced to make difficult decisions between heat and health.5 However, some of that burden might have been eased by following Grace’s lead.

By incorporating solar cooking into their cooking routines, average families across the globe could reduce their energy bills. For the ~2.3 billion people worldwide who still depend on biomass fuels like wood and charcoal, which can be costly and deadly, the transition is urgent.6 But even the most efficient electric ovens require between 2,000 and 5,000 watts of electrical power.7

The ULOG Box Oven Solar Cooker started saving Grace money almost immediately. And program participants were by no means passive recipients; they attended training, completed surveys, and actively explored new cooking techniques. By early 2023, Grace was feeling the benefits in her own life so acutely that she signed up to become a trainer.

Grace shared her experience and worked hard to train the next group of solar cooks introduced to solar cooking through SCI and Ecomandate’s annual cycle of work. She believes every home in Kakuma should have a solar cooker and is proud to be part of the effort to make that happen.

But why stop at Kakuma? We all, across the world, can learn from Grace and her co-participants that, even in adverse circumstances, we can save money, reduce our dependence on polluting fuels, and feed our families by incorporating solar technologies into our cooking routines.

*Name has been changed to protect the subject’s safety.

Sources

  1. https://tinyurl.com/264e9y9c
  2. https://tinyurl.com/3bp4nxvn
  3. https://tinyurl.com/2j6acj6x
  4. https://tinyurl.com/mrddnxf3
  5. https://tinyurl.com/26fj7evb
  6. https://tinyurl.com/ybuvhbvf
  7. https://tinyurl.com/yu7vu9um

About the Author

Sara Rosen is the program and operations manager at Solar Cookers International (SCI), which is an American Solar Energy Society member. She has been working with marginalized communities since 2009. In her role at SCI, she works to make solar cooking technologies more accessible by strengthening operational infrastructure and programmatic support. Originally from the United States, she now lives in southern Denmark.

Become an ASES member, unlock exclusive web content, and have a quarterly print issue of Solar Today mailed to you.

Why Should Students Attend SOLAR 2024?

Mon, 12/18/2023 - 21:58

ASES is committed to furthering the professional development of students and other people starting out in the renewable energy and sustainability industries through providing educational and networking opportunities. Our goal is for our students and emerging professionals to be involved in SOLAR 2024 through scholarships and internships, as well as presenting, attending, or volunteering. We want students to be empowered to be a part of the renewable energy and sustainability industries. During the conference, students will be able to:

  • Discover what’s next in solar policy, microgrid resilience planning, and workforce development.
  • Share and discuss successful skills to assist you in your personal and professional lives.
  • Grow your network and connect with fellow ASES members who are industry peers, technical experts, educators, and overall supporters of a 100% renewable energy world!
ABOUT SOLAR 2024

SOLAR 2024 is designed to serve and advance the solar energy industry by bringing together national labs, installers, government officials, and enthusiasts in the solar and renewable energy industries to explore solutions, new technologies, policy initiatives, and other key factors.

NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES

We are dedicating the following sessions specifically for students and others new to the renewable energy industry. Be sure to attend; you won’t want to miss them!

STUDENT REGISTRATION OPTIONS
  1. Apply to our JEDI Awards program! Each year, ASES offers a handful of complementary conference passes to expand our outreach to emerging professionals and strengthen our commitment to JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) principles by increasing accessibility to the event and supporting a diversity of conference attendees and ASES members. This is a needs-based scholarship. Applications are due February 15.
  2. We invite you to register here. Please note that ASES Student Members receive 70% off the conference registration price! (Please message membership@ases.org for the discount code.)
  3. As an ASES Student Member, you have the opportunity to volunteer and assist at the conference, which allows you to receive a complimentary conference registration pass. (Please message membership@ases.org to sign up.)
  4. Intern with us! All interns receive a complimentary conference pass. 
  5. If you cannot travel to Boulder, Colorado in August, we also offer a virtual attendance and volunteer options! 
  6. Check with your college or university to see if there is funding to support you in attending the conference.
WHO ATTENDS?

Over the last 52 years, thousands of professionals from public, private, and industrial sector organizations have attended the ASES National Solar Conferences. Attendees typically include:

  • Educators
  • Contractors
  • Developers
  • Architects
  • Engineers
  • Installers
  • Homeowners
  • Policy Makers
  • Researchers
  • Manufacturers
  • Solar Enthusiasts
  • Students

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.