When I was growing up in the seventies, my solar story featured mad scientists, buzz-cut engineers and hippie tinkerers battling against dirty energy villains to save the world from pollution, economic collapse, oil wars and nuclear waste.
I thought of solar power as the advanced energy source necessary to protect America and the world from a dark time in the future.
Now, that I’ve grown up a bit, I’ve come to see the industry I’ve admired for so long with a bit more realism.
This Solar Story is No Fairy Tale
Yes, there are still many solar heroes out there, who do well by doing good. But there’s also too much tawdry business in solar, from fly-by-night installers who do shoddy work in pursuit of a quick buck to solar telemarketers who just won’t leave homeowners in hot zip codes alone.
As the Orange County Register put it recently, describing the reputation of solar salespeople in one of the nation’s hottest markets for solar, Southern California, “Solar scams are on the rise, as some companies hit homeowners with increasingly aggressive sales and marketing tactics, and under-deliver on promises of low installation cost and big electricity savings.”
So, not all solar companies are run by heroes and saints. Their technology may be noble, but their marketing — not so much. Sigh.
Knowing that solar is just another industry like any other has probably made me wiser. But it’s certainly made me sadder.
Of course I remind myself that a few bad apples haven’t spoiled the whole barrel. For every solar scammer, there are dozens of solar companies that are delighting homeowners across America by setting them up with reliable clean energy for decades to come.
But I remain concerned about the story that the solar industry is telling today as those bad apples get more attention and threaten to give the whole industry a black eye. As the residential solar market heats up even more over the next few years, the industry will have to choose its story carefully to prevent a few shady installers from from becoming the new Solyndra.
Otherwise, solar companies could face a public backlash that will provide an opening to the forces arrayed against distributed solar — especially electric utilities — to push back solar-friendly policies like net metering even further. Not to mention alienating homeowners who should be solar buyers and solar voters.
Any New Technology Needs A Story to Spread
Seth Godin explains how the wrong story can hurt an industry and slow down the spread of a new technology.
Stories are necessary to help a new technology spread from early adopters to the general public. “The beauty of examples is that they can travel further and faster than the item itself,” he says.
Take email for example. Some of us can remember when it was a new technology, maybe thirty years ago. I can still remember working at a trade publishing company where one vice president would require his secretary to open up his email each morning and print out every new message for him to read. He would then write out his answer by pen to each message for the secretary to then transcribe into email responses.
But over time, executives averse to email became fewer and farther between as stories spread of email’s convenience and its benefits — especially how email could save time and money for both sender and receiver.
By contrast, some technologies have failed to tell good stories about themselves. This has slowed their spread. The mobile phone, for example. For too long, people thought of it as a traditional phone without wires. That’s nice — but not revolutionary. However, if people thought of a phone instead as like a Star Trek tricorder — a supercomputer, camera and overall magic tool in the palm of your hand — mobile phones might have spread more quickly.
It’s the same with some of the most promising technologies today, to take three famous examples:
Most of the stories of Bitcoin haven’t been about the blockchain. They’ve been about speculators, winning and losing fortunes. And most of the stories of 3-D printers have been about printing small, useless toys, including little pink cacti. And most of the stories about home drones have been about peeping toms and cool videos you can watch after other people make them.
The Industry’s Actions Will Tell the New Solar Story
So, my question to the solar industry is, which solar story do you want to tell? And even if you’re telling one story with your words, will your actions tell a different version?
Do you want to tell a solar story of fast-talking home improvement contractors who will stop at nothing to make the sale — the “Tin Men” of today? Of telephone scammers and consumer complaints and, every month, another state’s attorney general warning solar installers to stop ripping off little old ladies in subdivisions?
Or do you want to tell the good old solar story of heroes saving America? Of entrepreneurs with a mission to liberate millions of Americans from dirty energy and the power of fossil fuels and nuclear power? Of a new kind of energy provider that won’t just sell you PV panels or even kilowatt hours but will help you manage the energy in your home, in your business and in your community now and in the future?
To put it another way, if your solar story were a movie, would it star Kevin Costner as the NASA scientist with the pocket protector and Jeff Bridges as the homesteader with the Whole Earth Catalog, each trying to save the world with solar?
Or would your movie star Alec Baldwin as the douchebag sales trainer — “Always Be Closing!” — along with Danny DeVito as the angry telemarketer and Jack Lemon as the washed up door-to-door guy, angling for commissions by pushing yet another solar scam?
The script for the movie you make of your solar story will come from the words that you say about solar. Are they fair and accurate?
High Pressure Marketing is Like Low Quality PV Panels
But your story will also flow from the tools that you use.
This is as true in solar installation as it is in solar marketing. PV panels that slide off the roof after a mild earthquake or just stop producing after five years send one kind of message. So does solar marketing that uses high-pressure cold calls to bully homeowners into booking solar home assessments.
A very different message is sent by high quality work, whether on the customer’s rooftop or in their email inbox.
This story is told by a solar array that produces at high capacity long after the warranty expires. The story is also told by articles, e-books, videos and other marketing content delivered online that shows solar buyers that an installer is interested in more than making a quick buck.
Good content shows that a solar company really cares about helping customers find the best solar solution for them. That’s the good old solar story. And it’s the story that will help solar companies’ integrity shine through, earning them trust that will lead to more sales.
This story will also earn the whole solar industry public support that will protect it from policy attacks by the old energy establishment.
— Erik Curren, Curren Media Group