Solar is Contagious. How Does It Turn Into a Social Virus?

Lauren Wellicome/CC BY 2.0

When I wrote about a rush of solar installations in the UK, I noted that generous government feed-in tariffs were driving that boom. But those tariffs are now being cut substantially. Nevertheless, another solar incentive remains—the solar panels themselves that have been installed already.

You see, solar begets solar.

Each Installation Makes the Next One More Likely
Not long after my parents installed their panels, a neighbor installed solar too. Then another, and then another, Elsewhere my brother also went solar, based in part at least on the experience of my parents. Whether it was a case of homeowners waiting until someone else took the plunge so they weren't the "weirdo hippies" on the block, or just the fact that they were exposed to the benefits of clean energy through the experience of friends and neighbors, is hard to say. But it seems there's a clear correlation between the installation of solar and the installation of more solar.

Solarcentury/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Leveraging Peer-Influence for Faster Solar Adoption
Meg Cichon over at Renewable Energy World has an interesting piece on the contagious nature of solar, noting that NYU/Yale researchers have shown a direct correlation between the installation of solar panels in a neighborhood or street, and the increased speed at which further installations start to happen. Left to its own devices, says Cichon, this increased uptake would take a while to scale up. But innovative companies are harnessing the phenomenon to inform their growth strategy:

The NYU/Yale report goes on to mention companies that take advantage of these statistics, specifically SolarCity. “For example, one of the strategies employed by SolarCity (the largest installer in California) involves finding one or two vocal solar advocates in a neighborhood and giving the entire neighborhood a slightly lower price if enough adoptions are made within that neighborhood.” Other companies post signs that increase the visibility of the installations.

Utilities are also getting in on the act, says Cichon, training up advocates and investing in solar leasing.

Arlington County via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Understanding Social Networks is Key to Solar's Success
But it seems to me that yard signs and community advocates are only the tip of a large, potentially powerful iceberg. In a world where almost everyone is on twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, the savviest solar companies must seek ways to engage their customers and encourage them to share their experiences. After all, who wouldn't want to tell their friends that they have declared independence from the hated utilities and started generating their own power? Similarly, solar companies should spend as much time working on their presence within people's homes as they do on getting panels up on the roof.

Solar Is A Story Begging to Be Told
Jaymi posted last year on the challenges of combining social networking with energy conservation, but I suspect that those challenges are much less for early adopters of solar technology. Every person I have met who has installed solar just loves to monitor the output of their system, and compare it to their energy consumption. Finding ways to make that information obvious and accessible to friends and visitors should be a top priority for the industry. Yes, a clear, easy-to-read monitor display is important—but a clear easy-to-read and aesthetically pleasing monitor display would potentially be a game changer. Add the ability to directly share data with social networks and/or other solar customers, and you have the makings of a paradigm shift.

Indeed my musings are nothing new to the industry. Warren reported recently on a small-scale solar charger that harnessed social networks, encouraging users to compare stats and turn clean energy generation into a competitive game. And Sungevity made waves by hiring Patrick Crane—Linked In's former Chief Marketing Officer— to "make the peer-to-peer connection between Sungevity and its customers more robust. This includes developing web and smart phone applications that will enhance the customer experience of going solar."

Learning From Other Revolutionary Technologies
New technology like iPods, tablets and cell phones spread largely through word of mouth and the sharing of experiences. Folks saw their kids, parents, friends, neighbors or colleagues playing with their new gadget, and they were curious/envious and wanted to find out more. Humans being social (and competitive) creatures, the owner of said gadget was only too happy to share because they got to tell a cool story and show off their shiny new toy. Solar is made for a similar social contagion.

Nobody likes to boast about the electricity they use coming from mountaintop removal or a boring old nuclear power plant. But everyone is fascinated with the idea of a power station on their roof. The solar industry must leverage that fascination and turn it into a virus.

We all need to get infected.

Tags: Activism | Renewable Energy | Solar Power | United Kingdom | United States

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