SAN DIEGO – The Greentech Media Solar Summit, like the renewables sector itself, is in a transitional state. This year’s edition of the annual gathering moved to a new city and venue, saw the departure of its long-time research head and main spokesman Shayle Kann (although he was there as an attendee/participant), embraced more conference registration and participation tech as part of the experience (smooth touchscreen sign-in, impersonal Q&A app), and may be one of the last times that the GTM conference brand will be clearly distinct from its Wood Mackenzie parent (the research arm has already changed its name).
Although the many flavors of solar remain the main ingredients, the event baked in a fair dollop of energy storage, advanced grid and general energy market information during its two days. And, with a little effort, this reporter parsed a few marketing takeaways from the event.
Like previous summits, some of the tastiest morsels continue to be the various slices of the state-of-the-industry pie presented by the analysts. The always-entertaining-and-energetic MJ Shiao, who has the taken over the reins as the research group’s global lead for renewables and emerging tech, kicked off the conference with his presentation on the transformation of solar and the future of energy.
MJ pointed to several very encouraging trends, while acknowledging the industry bumpiness caused by repercussions of the recent Section 201 and other tariff actions in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Yes, he pointed out, “2017 was weird,” but solar is “one of the great underdog stories,” and he provided cause for optimism going forward: He cited the healthy growth of residential solar loans, the “flourishing” of the community solar sector, the emergence of more new state markets outside of California, the growing number of utilities going solar for economic reasons, the exciting trend of big (and not so big) corporates and businesses embracing distributed and offsite solar, and the early days of the storage market boom as reasons to smile. He concluded with an observation and a plea: Renewables will be the power market of tomorrow, but regulatory policy and markets need to evolve as consumer behavior changes.
Let’s take a brief look at a few of MJ’s trend points from a marketing perspective. On the consumer side, if loans are the new financing model, then the messaging has to focus not on tag lines like “you can get solar for no money down or zero dollars,” as we saw when leasing was the rage, but more on the value of ownership, competitive economics and environmental stewardship. Think of a solar loan as a cousin to a home equity line of credit, but one designed for the ultimate home appliance—a solar (and eventually storage) energy system that will minimize your utility bills, provide tax benefits (at least for now), last for 20-30 years with minimal upkeep (if it’s installed correctly with reliable components), and enhance the resale value of your home if you choose to put your domicile on the market.
As many participants noted, energy storage is the next big thing, Yes, we get it; consider that horse beaten to death! Most of us in the renewables community recognize that storage will be one of the key enablers of that transformation of solar and renewably dominated future of energy that MJ was talking about.
But what does “next” mean exactly? On the residential storage front, it means it’s an early-adopter market. Why? Because the economics don’t quite work out yet, except for those with a higher income level, insatiable appetite for new technologies or shaky grid resiliency. So storage marketers should not overhype the value prop to homeowners looking to get a few storage batteries in their garage.
On the nonresidential and utility storage side though, the use-case “stack” seems to be growing, as does the appetite by utilities and businesses to at least give pilot storage/solar-plus-storage installations a try, or even go further and embrace them with both arms.
If you own a business and suffer from peak-use or other demand charges that blow up your utility bill, storage may be a cost-saving solution right now. On the utility side, the various ancillary services, grid reliability and peak power applications that storage plays into just keep growing. Despite the challenge of nonhomogenous target audiences, storage marketers have a lot of room for creativity in their messaging, content development, storytelling and brand refinement to reach the folks signing the checks—or those influencing the decision-makers.
Another case of overpromising reared its disheveled head during a panel on what to expect for solar modules this year. A few of the panelists pointed to a minor public relations nightmare last year when several companies pumped up the volume about one of the latest crazes in high-efficiency cell and module technology: monocrystalline-silicon PERC, or mono PERC (which stands for “passivated emitter and rear cell” technology—there will be a quiz later).
The mono PERC hype machine apparently went into overdrive, but there ended up being a supply crunch, both in the equipment needed to manufacture the products and the products themselves. The result was unhappy distributors, EPCs and developers, as some PV suppliers struggled to live up to their half-baked promises. Nonfulfillment or late delivery of orders does not make a customer perky.
While mono PERC remains a hot ticket, another solar technology is gaining darling status: bifacial modules. The technology has the benefit of having a somewhat-self-explanatory name—the modules collect sun energy on top and reflected sunlight on the back/bottom—and it packs a significant performance pop compared to standard modules when used in the right topographic and irradiation conditions (it’s about the albedo, baby). When paired with solar trackers, bifacial looks especially promising.
Marketers and communicators, please don’t forget the mono PERC lesson: Just hold your horses. Bifacial modules represent a very, very small piece of the market so far, and are just beginning to be deployed at any meaningful scale, so they won’t be changing the world just yet. It doesn’t look good for your company, your client, your customers or the industry as a whole when exaggeration and broken promises diminish our solar and storage brands.
This post is not meant to be a definitive review of the GTM Solar Summit (or the Solar Software Summit that also took place), so I suggest checking the GTM site for coverage and video replays if you crave more info. Maybe next year’s GTM Solar Summit (or whatever they end up rebranding it) will include an actual panel or two on marketing and PR best practices for solar and storage. I know a few folks who could help with that.