By Craig Merrigan, co-founder and CEO, Spotlight Solar
I love the new John Deere lawnmower commercial: “It’s not how fast you mow, it’s how well you mow fast.” Adapted for solar: “It’s not how visible your solar is, it’s how well you make solar visible.”
In a previous article, I established the importance of visible solar and its impact. By placing great-looking solar in full view, you increase adoption. The property owner’s reputation as an environmental steward improves, and they influence others to follow their lead. The solar installer or developer who wins the job may do so at a higher margin, and has added unlooked-for value to the client.
In this second part, we’ve outlined some rules of thumb for doing visible solar well.
Rule #1: Aim well. Visible, aesthetic solar is not for everyone. It is great for properties that a lot of people see: stadiums, airports, retail centers, office parks, apartment buildings, mixed-use developments, museums, city halls, parks, schools, universities, convention centers, hotels and car dealerships. It is not great for factories and warehouses in rural areas, military facilities, shipyards or Trump Tower. Also, consider the decision-maker who can weigh the cost/benefit tradeoff of something that contributes to the reputation of the property owner/occupant. This is a conversation for the C-suite, or marketing, or sustainability. Typically, procurement doesn’t have aesthetic solar on the RFP checklist.
Rule #2: Cost per watt is irrelevant. OK, calm down and let me finish. Visible solar shows people that the property owner advocates solar and the environment. It is an investment in communication, brand reputation, property differentiation and influence. That is how it should be positioned to the client. The question is: How much is that benefit worth?
Rule #3: Use products that look great … from the back. Visible solar is best when people can engage: getting next to it, behind it, under it. But most solar looks terrible from the back. Wires, junction boxes, labels, lugs. You can do better. For instance, Lumos makes a frameless module that doesn’t require grounding, and has a transparent backsheet so people can see the PV cells from the back. This helps with understanding and appreciation when people stand behind or underneath your installation. Thin-film modules normally have a mirror finish on the back, so they can look very striking, just not recognizable as solar. Parking canopies are OK for visibility and create shade, but usually scrimp on cost by using conventional modules and racking, exposing all that gorp on the bottom. There’s a reason that pictures of canopies are mostly taken from above. There are also a few providers of engineered solar trees, made for a 360o visitor experience. (Disclosure: My company is one of these.)
Rule #4: Make it un-embarrassing. Great-looking visible solar is not meant to be a primary energy source. But it should show up, both visually and in energy contribution. People will ask, “how much power does it make?” So don’t put up a one-module attractor of derision, or something that shades itself. Six modules or more creates a presence and production you can talk about. Help the owner to talk about it in ways that connect with people. Instead of “this 2 KW system makes 3,000 KWh and reduces CO2 by 2 metric tons per year,” try “our solar tree makes enough clean energy to power electric vehicles for 10,000 miles every year.”
Rule #4b: No greenwashing. Aesthetic solar is meant to complement larger investments in clean energy or stewardship. If this is your client’s only such action, steer clear. Inauthentic behavior is punishable by social media.
Rule #5: Self-surgery can be hazardous. It is hard to avoid a self-serving comment here, but I recommend relying on manufacturers of aesthetic products instead of rolling your own. It may seem straightforward to commission an artist or engineer to design a sculptural structure to incorporate PV and then have it fabricated by that guy you know. But getting the balance of beauty and energy production right, while making something that won’t blow over in a hurricane, is difficult and time consuming. While you may avoid cost and create an original, consider the value of your time and the potential that it will go sideways. Artists and welders don’t offer warranties.
Rule #6: Read the instructions and enjoy. The planning and installation process has some differences from normal solar. For instance, if you’re installing a 20-foot-tall solar tree, you’ll need an in-ground foundation a bit larger than required for the average ground mount. You’ll need a few tools that may not be on the truck, like rigging slings for lifting major components. You will need someone who can drive a boom fork with precision (or hire a small crane). For well-prepared teams, it’s a fun variation from the solar norm. There will be selfies.
Rule #7: Make it awesome and engaging. Solar is an elegant technology that can and should be presented elegantly. Don’t do solar-on-a-stick—it’s clunky and utilitarian, and will undermine the goal of inspiring people. Select attractive product components and ensure the installation is super clean. Tuck in those wires. Also, help your client complete the communications play with well-designed signage explaining how this installation is 1/1000th of their whole solar investment, and connect people to the monitoring site to see the production and impact. Draw people in by providing power outlets.
Before you lift that gorgeous clean energy technology into place, make sure the press has been called and the cameras are rolling. The media loves solar, but doesn’t like going on the roof or into the hinterlands to shoot rows of rectangles. They will come to see a novel and beautiful solar structure. When you engage the media in collaboration with your client, you’ll help deliver the reputation value and impact that visible solar promises.
Learn more about the benefits of visible solar installations in this related article.