By Craig Merrigan, co-founder and CEO, Spotlight Solar
Solar has enjoyed a compound annual growth rate of 39% over the last four years, becoming a $23 billion business in the United States. But it still only accounts for about 1% of electricity generation, which puts it in the “early adopters” stage of technology adoption. At the same time, the high margins one might expect from a new, beneficial technology early in its lifecycle are nowhere to be seen. Why? Lack of visibility.
People rarely encounter solar. The bulk of solar installed to date is out in the desert or on commercial rooftops—not in your town square. Everyone knows what solar is, and a large majority of people like it, but because they don’t see it, they don’t think about it.
Where solar is visible, the impact on adoption is compelling. Yale and NYU researchers discovered this effect when studying the catalysts for adoption of solar in Connecticut and California. The most important factor they discovered was proximity to other solar installations. SolarCity recently reported similar findings. That is, when people see other people adopting solar, they are much more likely to buy it. This peer or “neighbor” effect is critical to the acceptance of new technologies into the mainstream.
Simply put, we need more visible solar installations to spur purchase consideration. The main challenge is most of the places best suited for solar are not very visible—we need to supplement the primary, hidden solar systems with smaller ones that are designed for visibility and engagement. Another issue is solar equipment is not well suited to public space. Solar technology is beautiful; it makes energy from sunlight without smoke or moving parts, for Pete’s sake! But rows of rectangles screwed to erector sets with obvious wires and junction boxes are not beautiful. Therefore, making solar visible is not just a matter of putting conventional PV on the front lawn; we need special solar products that look great.
18 years ago, Gleisdorf, Austria, started to commission solar “trees” and other aesthetic solar in public spaces. These were one-off projects that doubtlessly consumed time and money, but they clearly communicated endorsement of clean energy. And they inspired the advent of aesthetic solar components that were ready-made products. The Ross Lovegrove Solar Tree, for instance, was a compelling application of industrial design, incorporating PV, seating and lighting, but it was exotic and didn’t connect well to mainstream solar.
Now there are aesthetic solar products that integrate mainstream technologies, but which are designed to be seen and enjoyed: frameless, double-glass modules from Lumos, Sunpreme and others; PV-integrated park benches; Solaire Generation’s higher-end parking canopies; and Spotlight Solar structures. This list is growing.
These products facilitate visible, attractive solar installations that activate the peer effect referred to above. They show many people that the property owner or community endorses solar energy. Consider the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, a city determined to establish a position as the greenest in the South. There is more than a megawatt of PV on the roof, and none of the convention center’s 1.3 million annual visitors can see it. Recently, the Orlando Utilities Commission added four prominent solar trees to the property, making solar’s presence impossible to ignore and sending the message that Orlando is green. They’re doing the same at the Citrus Bowl and at rail stations around town—bringing solar to where the people are—while at the same time adding 13 MW on a landfill out of view. The visible projects will raise awareness of solar to a top-of-mind position and get more people to consider solar for themselves.
How visible solar benefits commercial and public sector clients
When property owners invest in solar, they realize an attractive return on investment and payback period. They also create environmental benefit by employing new, clean technology. This type of stewardship tends to win respect and affinity, but only if people know about it. Clients often ask if there is a way to make their solar visible, and so there are ribbon cuttings and lobby displays. But these are quickly forgotten or easily ignored, and are certainly not visible from the street.
When solar becomes visible (and attractive), the property owner or occupant receives a new layer of value: reputation value. This is reputation for stewardship, authentically earned by their investment in solar, or efficiency, or green building—reputation value unrealized without visibility.
When your client’s reputation for authentic positive impact improves, it benefits their business. Are they a retailer? Their shopper traffic will rise because people’s affinity and advocacy improves. Do they rent space? Their occupancy will go up. Do they have employees? Engagement and retention will improve. Are they city leaders? Their influence will grow. Everyone wants to save money on energy, and solar checks that box. But even more than that, they want more shoppers, more renters and to be re-elected. When you bring visibility to solar for your clients, you increase its impact, extending it into the core of what they care about.
Imagine you are proposing a sizable rooftop PV project. Your payback spreadsheet shows a solid return, but it would look better with a lower cost. So the price pressure is on. What happens if you also bring your client unlooked for value—through visibility—in brand, reputation and business value? Answer: The client will prefer your proposal, and will become less price sensitive.
Many solar clients also care about the environment, and they would like to inspire others to follow their lead. A wise man once said, “don’t hide your light under a bushel.” When solar goes front and center on a property, it makes a statement of advocacy from the owners and occupants. Other people take notice and consider their own choices. Showing your solar is a responsible thing to do.