Jun 10, 2015

The Science of Acceleration: Reflections on Solar Marketing

On April 15th, students, professors from Duke and Yale Universities, and executives from non-profit marketing firm SmartPower and the Connecticut Green Bank gathered around a very large table in the basement of Kroon Hall. This was the final meeting of a five-year campaign. Everybody there was a partner in the Solar Energy Education and Diffusion Study (SEEDS), a Department of Energy funded research program.

Since 2010, 58 Connecticut towns have participated in five rounds of this unique community-based marketing campaign, designed to motivate solar adoption among homeowners. The program as a whole was called “Solarize,” and with each round we introduced a subset of towns to slight variations in the campaign. The research teams at Duke and Yale then interviewed participants and analyzed data to understand what worked and what didn’t, collecting attributes of the optimal solar campaign.

In the standard version of the campaign, town leadership (with the CT Green Bank) selected a single local company to provide solar installation. SmartPower then helped the town recruit “Solar Ambassadors”—active community members who either had panels on their own rooftops or were passionate and knowledgeable about solar. Solar Ambassadors and trusted town officials then advocated for the program and the installer through word of mouth, local publications, signs around the community and social media. SmartPower helped coordinate a series of intimate educational events including solar workshops, live-installations for the public and community tours of homes that already had solar. As more people signed up, the price fell further. A strict end-date inspired fast action.

The fifth (and final) round of Solarize included a couple of interesting variations on the classic model. Rather than each town rallying behind a single solar installer, several of the towns had a choice. Within that subset of towns, some used a website to help with research and comparisons across installers.

The discussion at the partners meeting was an informal debrief based on anecdotal observations and quickly drawn conclusions. The more scientific analysis is yet to come as our team of research assistants goes out to interview town leaders and solar ambassadors and survey data from all participants is compiled and analyzed.

Though the casual observations discussed at the meeting were by no means conclusive findings, it was interesting to hear the perspectives of the campaign organizers and financers who have had so much experience with this program throughout its three-year history. The reactions of the professors managing the study added insight and depth as they connected the anecdotes to potential implications for the research.

One of the interesting observations the SmartPower team made based on close interactions with community leaders throughout the campaign, was that having a choice of installer and introducing a web platform seemed to weaken the trust and dedication that community members held in the program

In the "traditional" campaigns (not online) the town leaders and ambassadors played an active role in selecting and interacting with the solar installers. As a result of this investment of time and energy, the town leaders and ambassadors had comfort and familiarity with the installers, which they could then impart in discussions with residents. Introducing a choice of installers forced Solarize leaders to take a step back; it confined them to talking about solar energy broadly. Additionally, when community members started shopping between various installers, they got quotes for different-sized systems with terms that were hard to compare. This created confusion and may have discouraged people from moving forward.

The web platform, only introduced in some towns, was intended to test whether an online tool could help with the decision-making process. Our project partners noted that many community members had trouble using the site, and that difficulty comparing quotes remained. The web platform also removed some of the emphasis on personal interactions. Putting a website between the campaign leaders and the actual decision seemed to make the program less about trust and community and more about numbers.

A final interesting discussion point was that while solar installations increased in the participating towns through the Solarize campaign, installations by SolarCity also increased in these towns. SolarCity is the nation’s largest residential solar installer and the greatest competition to the local installers that participate in Solarize. This suggests that large national solar brands like SolarCity also benefitted from the education and awareness Solarize created—the discussion it generated around solar, and the interest it spurred among homeowners. On the one hand this could be interpreted as SolarCity free-riding on Solarize CT and taking business away from the local installers involved in Solarize. On the other hand, it speaks to the power of a community-based approach for increasing solar installation. Perhaps major national solar brands like SolarCity should consider investing in these kinds of local, on-the-ground marketing programs.

In total, 17 megawatts of solar have been contracted across the state since Solarize began—an undeniably significant figure. As a third year joint-degree student here at Yale, I’m about to graduate and begin my career in clean-tech marketing. I know that the insights I’ve learned through participating in SEEDS this year will be invaluable in accelerating progress as I set up marketing programs of my own. I look forward to the official findings that will be published by the research team over the next few years.