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40 Years in, Solar is Ready for a Makeover

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Lindsay Saxby
Think quick: What brand comes to mind when you think of batteries? Is it Energizer, the brand that keeps going and going? How about fuel efficient cars? Did the Toyota Prius come to mind first?

What about solar panels? Anyone having trouble on this one?

From my observation, you’re not alone.  It seems that unless you work in the solar industry, or for some reason have done research on top solar PV companies, identifying the most recognized name in solar is fairly difficult.  Why is this important? For an industry that is as old as that lava lamp sitting in your bedroom, it’s troubling that there isn’t a brand that is synonymous with solar.

The case for domestic renewable energy is made every day in the political and economic discourse as wars continue to rage in the Middle East.  While the industry is growing, solar just hasn’t jumped onto the scene in the same way something like the Prius did.  Why won’t a person spend as much for a solar array as they would a Prius? Sure, you can’t take your solar array to the beach or carry your friends around in it, but it will more than reimburse your entire investment for about the same up-front cost! Of course bureaucratic problems such as PACE financing have plagued the industry, yet it seems there is a larger reason that people have difficulty understanding and relating to solar.
What seems to be missing is the sense of self image that accompanies something like a car.  It is the user experience that solar lacks; that on-going interaction that ultimately gratifies the customer.  Thankfully, solar panels no longer look like a spaceship landed on someone’s house but they’re still not something most people show off on a regular basis.

There are in fact, a number of leaders in the industry, with Sun Edison and SunPower taking the charge as the largest solar PV companies as of last year.  Did you know that Sharp, the same company that makes your TV, comes in as the fourth largest PV installer?  The top 10 solar installers in California make up 40 percent of the total market; the other 60 percent are the ‘long-tail’ of the industry, about 750 installers who are mostly by ‘mom and pop’ outfits.

Yet, no one really knows who these companies are.  I had the pleasure of attending the SolarTech Solar Leadership Summit a couple of weeks ago and heard the terrifying story of a ‘long-tail’ installer who was charging an 80 year-old woman $17/watt for her new solar array (average rate is about $3/watt in the US).  Although the room was aghast, it sounded like this story had been told before.   The industry is fragmented and dominated by small, unknown contractors who have the potential to tarnish the image of the industry at large.  Grandma should have gone to… who?

Solar is yearning for a recognizable brand to draw it into the mainstream; something that is synonymous with trust and quality and also generates a greater interactive relationship and added value for the consumer.  Developing a brand is about creating an identity for the consumer and creating a personality for the product.  It’s been 40 years since solar came on to the scene, and the industry is ready for a make-over.  Not only will the first company to accomplish this task reap the sunny financial rewards, a new image for renewable energy will be a win for climate action goals across the country.

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