Right exposure key to growing industry

Solar energy providers have had to adjust their communications strategy as they seek to educate and engage consumers.

Solar energy providers have had to adjust their communications strategy as they seek to educate and engage consumers.

For years, placements in trade press made up the bulk of Schott North America's PR strategy. Stories about the solar energy manufacturer appeared in publications like Solar Industry Magazine, Eco-Structure, and Solar Today. During this time, the PR team watched and waited as Google queries began to build up, positioning the company as a thought leader in the solar energy industry. And then, about a year ago, came big media.

Schott North America, a subsidiary of Schott AG of Germany, had placed itself at the forefront of a media blitz that has touched on everything from organic consumer products to the effects of a green collar workforce on the US economy. Media placements included The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post, as well as stories from Reuters and The Associated Press.

Market challenges
While Schott had always targeted commercial and business demographics, the PR team used the opportunity to begin pitching its executives as experts who could discuss the basics of the technology - Schott's solar arm manufactures photovoltaic tiles, thin-film solar cells, and concentrated solar power receivers - and why support for energy policy was needed.

"We were always pitching major media," says Brian Lynch, PR manager for the past five years at Elmsford, NY-based Schott. "It's more in their acceptance. In the past year, there's been a lot more articles written so we've been targeting them a bit more."

The main challenge for solar energy companies has been to educate the public. Too many people still believe that a solar energy company heats water or that the technology is unproven, Lynch says. While Schott North America does not sell directly to consumers, the PR team still found ways to create a media presence by launching community campaigns and reaching out to regional media, like community newspapers and local business journals.

Schott posted an educational video about a solar technology project on YouTube, which generated 40,000 views before it was taken down about six months ago, Lynch says. It also sponsored a high school solar race team from Houston, MS, for three years and helped the students set up a blog to write about their experiences, as well as provide media relations for race events.

"It made it tangible to people," Lynch says. "It fit into our key message. With education, it's progressed over time. Our name would come up [on a search] and there would be more... opportunities."

The challenges that Akeena Solar, a solar power manufacturer and installer, have faced are nearly identical to Schott.

Steve Daniel, EVP of sales and marketing at Akeena, says the company has spent a great deal of time and money branding the name and educating people about solar energy for the past two years. Akeena's PR team followed the same media relation's route as Schott, marketing first to industry publications and then to major media outlets.

The point, Daniel says, was to get the company name out, either in the blogosphere or by word of mouth, so when the media interest began to swell, Akeena was already positioned within the solar energy industry. He points out that he now sees at least one renewable energy story in the San Jose Mercury News every three days.

Los Gatos, CA-based Akeena then began to target consumers by pitching the concept that buying solar is a similar process to buying a car. The pitches are different than before, but Daniel says that Akeena's brand is known to consumers. The company has also reached consumers by hosting seminars and getting involved with community programs.

"It's a lot of grassroots stuff," Daniel says, citing tactics such as community newspaper outreach. But what's changed is that consumers are now more educated about solar. "People are doing their research."

Extending outreach
On a larger scale, the solar energy community has geared up for a general PR campaign to educate and address the possibility that tax credits might expire in December.

In 2005, Congress extended the Energy Policy Act to include a tax credit of 30% for solar power companies. Unless renewed, it will revert to 10% in December.

"The industry is in its relative infancy and we continue to work together," says Schott's Lynch, who also works with the PR team at Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a Washington-based trade association. "There's a give-take, and it all comes together."

While Schott's team has increased the number of public policy pitches since fall 2007, mainly due to the expiring tax credits, Lynch says there is an obvious change in responses from reporters and consumers, who have become more educated about solar technology and its uses. To complement the public policy pitches, he adds that the team has put together studies and surveys weighing the economic impact of the bill.

"Even in outreach to other industries, people have heard of Schott," Lynch says. "There's a lot more credibility to the push in solar."

The solar effect
By the year 2015, the solar industry expects to add 62,000 jobs in the manufacturing, plumbing, roofing, design, and engineering fields

The number of solar installations in the US increased by 24% last year, from 10,239 in 2006 to
12,714 in 2007

California leads the US solar installation market, with New Jersey, Nevada, Colorado, and New York rounding out the top five markets in the US

In 2007, Wal-Mart pledged to install photovoltaic (PV) panels at 22 stores in California and Hawaii. Best Buy has plans to add PV panels to 35 locations in 2008

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

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