For cleantech and renewable energy advocates, the steady rise of community solar is the feel-good story of the last couple of years. Over the last 24 months, the sector has grown at an annual rate of 112 percent; there are currently 734 megawatts of community solar capacity installed in the U.S., and more than half of that was installed in 2017.
Despite this momentum, community solar has yet to reach a clear breakout point — and applying old marketing and sales strategies to the acquisition of community solar subscribers is a big reason why.
Community solar marketing: A customer case study
My interest in this topic is both personal and professional. As a marketing professional working in cleantech sectors, part of my job is knowing and understanding the latest industry trends. Personally, I’m a staunch advocate of renewable energy and a climate hawk, so I want to see community solar grow and thrive for ideological reasons.
I live in New York state, which is one of the hottest community solar markets in the country, thanks in large part to strong policy support like the Reforming the Energy Vision initiative, which includes a 50 percent renewable statewide generation target by 2030, and the $1 billion NY-Sun program, a public-private partnership that expands access to solar through incentives and resources. In May of this year, New York state had 728 megawatts' worth of community solar projects in the pipeline.
Rooftop solar isn’t an option for me (too many trees shading my roof), so I’d been on the lookout for community solar projects for a while when I finally got an email about a project in my area. I immediately filled out an online form to learn more. My personal beliefs, my home's incompatibility with rooftop solar, and my location in one of the friendliest markets in the U.S. made me a “hot lead” for community solar developers.
Closing the deal and getting my signature on a contract should have been a slam dunk for NRG, one of the largest American energy companies and the developer of the project in my community. Instead, my three-month journey through its sales process turned me from a hot lead into an annoyed non-subscriber with a lower opinion of NRG than I had had when the process began.
The fact that many of the negative aspects of my experience are common across community solar marketing is cause for concern. For community solar to get to a breakout point for growth, developers (and their partners and contractors) should take a fresh approach to marketing and sales that’s focused on transparent education and clarity of information.
Tips for community solar marketing: Transparent education and clear information
1. Educate and be transparent. After expressing interest in subscribing to the NRG project in my area, I received an 11-slide sales proposal. The deck’s first slide — ”Good for the Planet” — focused on the climate benefits of signing up.
This was the first red flag: I had already taken action to sign up. Wouldn’t I already be aware of solar’s climate benefits? Overall, the proposal did little to inform me about the specific project I would be subscribing to and was more focused on making me feel good about the positives of community solar than clearly articulating how the arrangement would work.
Community solar is relatively new and unfamiliar to most people. Its financial models are complex and the level of trust and commitment required from subscribers is high. For these reasons, educating potential subscribers about how the model for their community works is marketers’ most important job.
They should use a variety of tools to provide this information that go far beyond sales materials: post explainer videos, FAQs, infographics and other informational materials on social media, in local news outlets and on physical bulletin boards in the community. The goal should be for subscribers to know the basics of community solar before they become leads.
As they educate, companies should be as transparent as possible about their role, explaining why they chose this specific community for a solar project, any uncertainties around the project and what they stand to gain from it. Had I received clear information about NRG’s role in my community’s solar project and how they would be collecting revenue from it — either through publicly available information or the sales process — I’d probably be a subscriber today.
Marketers should utilize the latest digital marketing platforms for more efficient, targeted and useful outreach. Sales proposals, door-knocking and cold calls still have a place, but community solar marketers should use them sparingly and never forget that they might backfire by eliciting a negative association with the company and project in the minds of residents.
2. Be clear about the complexities and risks involved in community solar — and don’t sugarcoat them. The next step on my journey was a call with a sales rep from NRG’s marketing contractor, which began with him asking, “Do you think energy prices will go up or down in the future?”
This was red flag number two: It’s impossible to make that prediction with any certainty, and if the value proposition for the community project was predicated on rising electricity prices, what happens if they go down? The salesman walked me through the proposal, and when we arrived at the “how it works” slide, I had lots of questions.
A four-step diagram laid out the basics: I buy “solar generation” from the solar project via payment to NRG, then pay my electric bill as before, but would pay less after the renewable energy credits (RECs) from the project were applied to my bill. I wanted to know the details, specifically who owns the RECs once they are generated, who sells them to whom and how much does NRG or a another project owner/operator pocket in the process? The salesman wasn’t able to answer that question — red flag number three.
In subsequent communications, I made clear that I was interested in subscribing but needed more clarity on the REC question, and I needed it in writing. From there, the sales process fell apart. Instead of honoring my request or offering to discuss it in specific terms, NRG sent me more auto-generated emails heavy on marketing language and light on substance.
If someone is considering subscribing to a community project, chances are they’re excited about “going solar” and realizing its environmental and climate benefits. What potential subscribers are not excited about is a 20-year contract and figuring out where exactly their money is going. That’s why marketers and salespeople should cut right to the chase on the less-feel-good aspects of community solar early in the process and be prepared to explain and answer questions about them over and over, in different ways.
In addition to my environmental and climate values, I did see potential for saving money on my family’s energy bills as a good reason to subscribe. I knew full well that there would be no guarantee that I would save money, but it was a risk I was willing to take. I just wanted more information before assuming that risk.
Community solar marketers need to acknowledge that there are risks and drawbacks that make signing up a difficult decision, rather than trying to convince leads that the negatives that come with the project are actually positives. One follow-up marketing email from NRG actually declared, “Two bills are better than one!”
Obviously, unless you are the one receiving bill payments, that will never be true. Perhaps if NRG had made the four-step “how it works” diagram in the proposal deck into a deeper dive that included the role they would play in my contract (beyond building the project), I wouldn’t have had to demand the answers from them that ultimately led me to not sign up.
There’s lots to love about community solar, and there’s little doubt that it will continue to grow. At this point of the sector’s evolution, there's a risk of impeding that growth with suboptimal marketing strategies and tactics. I hope community solar developers and their contractors will take some lessons from my journey and bring new thinking and new strategies to their work. When they do, I’ll be first in line to sign up.
Josh Garrett is an account director at Antenna Group.