A recent CNBC.com piece at asked the question: “Does the solar industry have a PR problem?” Unfortunately, the story itself is the PR problem.
The piece cited a March study from two reputable organizations, SolarTech and San Jose University, which found that only 39% of Americans think solar is reliable and only 11 percent think it’s affordable.
The article was attempting to address an important point: That solar companies still have a lot to do to counter perceptions that solar doesn’t work. But rather than take a detailed look at customer experiences to actually figure out if solar is working, or examine the important steps solar companies are taking to address the problem, the reporter highlights the opinions of companies with a direct financial interest in pushing the perception that solar doesn’t work:
Jim Nelson, CEO of solar manufacturer Solar3D, says that, true to the perception, solar technology is not quite ready for prime time.
The problem, says Nelson, is that solar is generally still not price competitive with fossil fuels for energy generation. Paradoxically, government efforts to subsidize the purchase of solar panels actually slow down the adoption of innovation that should ultimately make renewable energy more affordable.
By encouraging consumers to buy immature and inferior solar technology right now, government subsidies risk locking people into solar systems that are inefficient, expensive, and may or may not ultimately pay off to the consumer. “They’re encouraging people to use things that don’t work,” he says….
Tim Young, CEO of solar cell manufacturer HyperSolar, says that a household solar installation using photovaltic, PV, cells — wherein light is converted into electricity by displacing electrons in silicon cells — typically needs 10 years to pay for itself, and after 20 years those cells will have substantially degraded.
For people who are either very well-off, very passionate about green energy, or both, that could be a fine trade-off. But for the mass consumer — or for that matter for power-supplying utilities — that’s a big negative for now.
Doesn’t work? A big negative?
Let’s be very clear: These two companies don’t even have a product yet — they’re both working on prototypes for new solar cells. (We covered Solar 3D in a previous post, showing that it takes strong incentives on the project deployment side to encourage cost reductions, not just in R&D.) At this very early stage of development, their success depends in part on convincing people that today’s technologies don’t work.
We are not making a judgment about the viability of the technologies these companies are developing. We would, of course, love to see them succeed and help drive continued innovation in the industry. However, if the reporter had any clear understanding of why these companies make the claim that solar doesn’t work, he would have been able to put their statements into context. But no. Instead, he perpetuates the myth that solar doesn’t work.
So, does solar work for the consumer? The story mentions one company, Sungevity, which is providing financial services to customers along with the installation. Other leading companies include SunRun, Solar City and the up-and-coming BrightGrid Renewable Finance — which have installed tens of thousands of systems between them.
These service providers allow a homeowner to invest in solar without having to pay up-front for the system, and instead purchase the electricity or lease the system. (Think of these products like point-of-sale financing that car dealerships offer when selling automobiles. Can most people afford a car up-front? No. But the financing tools make cars affordable for people.) In most cases, the customer pays less for solar electricity than they previously paid for grid-based electricity. And guess what? They still get to watch television and run their dishwasher.
And how about the tens of thousands of people who live off-grid in the U.S. and use solar for all their electricity needs? Well, today’s technologies work for those applications too. A couple months ago, one of our readers left a comment on the old Climate Progress site (luckily I had copied over the comment) about how frustrating it is to hear the claim that solar doesn’t work repeated over and over:
I live off grid in VT, and can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into people who have tried to tell me solar can’t work where I live “because there’s not as much sun.” Even telling them that solar is my family’s sole power source in northern Vermont is sometimes not enough to break through that particular myth!
And how about solar being a “big negative” for the utility? Perhaps we should look at the levelized cost of energy from solar in California compared to a peaking natural gas plant — an inefficient plant that must be ramped up for just a few hours a day to meet demand. The cost of electricity from these plants can get over 40 cents a kilowatt-hour, making solar competitive in many areas of the country. That doesn’t even count the cost of the high environmental damage done by natural gas peakers, which is considerably higher than that of high-efficiency gas plants.
And in some states with tiered retail rates that reflect the cost of that generation, customers can pay up to 30 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity! [See figure above.]
We’re not talking about solar as a baseload power source here. We’re talking about solar where it makes sense — and cents — as a peaking resource that can offset the most expensive electricity for utilities and consumers while stabilizing the grid. For that purpose solar works today. To suggest that companies are “encouraging people to use things that don’t work” is simply wrong.
The SolarTech/San Jose University report wasn’t about whether solar works or not, it was about countering the perception that it doesn’t work through better communication with customers. Pam Cargill, a solar consultant, summed up the findings from the report well:
Here’s the take away for residential solar companies:
- Installing companies need to make proposals simpler to understand.
- Installing companies need to simplify their solar energy system offerings into comprehensive products that resonate with general consumer understanding.
- Marketing of solar energy needs to respond to, as Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute put it, mainstream America’s concerns of “hot showers, cold beer, and lit rooms.”
- Consumers need access to unbiased information: real performance data from installations and technology-neutral explanations of what the system can do and how they work.
Unfortunately, the CNBC reporter made the story a technology issue, when in fact it’s a business and communications issue. But is that really a surprise?