Let the Sunshine In: A Solar Power Blog

January 4, 2015

The Why and How of Solar Blogging

To blog or not to blog, that is the question… but is it really, for any viable solar organization? Perhaps a more pertinent question would be: “How can one not blog?” According to statistics published on the Internet, 6.7 million users currently contribute to blogging sites and 12 million users blog through social networks. The majority of bloggers are women, and these tend to be the decision makers in couples purchasing solar systems. Most importantly, 61% of consumers have made a purchase based on a blog post.

A blog is also a very cost-effective method of communication for your company, particularly as opposed to advertising or PR (though of course it will not replace them). All any organization really needs to blog, after all, is a website and a qualified person, or persons, to compose the posts. If paid advertising can be said to be a jacket-and-tie type of self-representation, then blogging reveals the organization communicating informally, in sneakers and jeans so to speak – and that’s precisely what may be needed to overcome sales resistance in some customers.

If your organization doesn’t already have a blog and decides to start one, there are several important things to do and not do. A major gaffe to avoid is to leave the decision to middle management without direct CEO involvement or even strong buy-in, or, even worse, to take aside some clerical-level employee and say, “We need to set up a blog; take care of it.” A blog reflects your organization at least as much any other part of your website, so just as much deliberation should go into its messaging, style and scheduling as any other page on your site.

The second most important imperative is that a blog about renewable energy should be… renewable. That is, you shouldn’t – as too many organizations do – publish a handful of posts and then stop. It doesn’t look professional to do this and may give the impression that your organization has a habit of failing to follow through, not to mention the fact that the whole point of a blog is to establish an online relationship with your customer base, which takes time and patience.

A third point is that you should never publish a blog post unless you have something interesting to say. The corollary to this, of course, is that you should almost always be able to find something interesting to say (or why does the organization exist in the first place?). Finally, your blog is there to tell the world who you are: it should be conceived as expanding upon the “About Us” page of your website. Never shy away from communicating what is distinctive about you.

Here are a few examples that rank high on Google listings under “solar blog.” (The present author, of course, is not endorsing any of these organizations, and is not professionally connected with any of them.)

  • Pure Energies – The prime example of “telling the world who you are,” the Canadian-based Pure Energies team, led by President and CEO Zbigniew Barwicz, recently ventured to the Brazilian Amazon (the real one, not the website) to check out the indigenous Kayapo tribe and study its way of life, and recorded this trip in a series of blog posts. The team, according to their press release, “were motivated to bring the Kayapo success story to the busy homeowners of North America to showcase a pure form of sustainability, wealth and happiness.” In so doing, they are defining for their readers their core values and hoping to connect with North American customers who share those very values.
  • HelioPower – This California-based solar provider decided last Spring to weigh in on a then-recent public controversy: the “Solar Freakin’ Roadways” viral video, which promotes an ambitious project to turn the nation’s highways and parking lots into solar farms. (The blog’s author was extremely skeptical of this plan.) By commenting upon an Internet meme that the company’s customers would likely be discussing, or at least know about, the blog writer was displaying both HelioPower’s cultural awareness and its solar experience – not to mention enhancing its presence on Google.
  • Mosaic – Describing itself as “the first peer-to-peer lending platform for solar power,” Mosaic doesn’t shy away from the task of educating its readers. In the title of the post, “Home Solar for Dummies… or Anyone Who Doesn’t Work in Solar,” the guest blogger invokes the “Dummies” brand of books for beginners. In so doing, she acknowledges that the subject of solar financing can seem, for the layman, forbiddingly complicated and technical, while also implying that she will try to write about it as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. She then proceeds to give a short and sweet review of the differences between solar loans, leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs), and to provide a brief summary of which major companies offer which types of financing. A reader would thus experience the blog as a trustworthy and informative source that doesn’t talk down to him or her.

What would be the best way to get your own blog going? First, after deciding, with significant input from top management, the purpose of the blog, who its audience should be and what kind of messages it should convey, delegate a small team of people, either in-house or freelance, to take charge of it. (A single blogger will probably not be enough, as that person might eventually be overwhelmed by other work deadlines and emergencies, and the posting schedule would necessarily suffer.) Using freelancers may be okay; however, they must know the business well, understand what the organization wants to communicate and work harmoniously together, as they will need to strategize as well as write. However, an in-house team of three or four part-time bloggers would be ideal, because they presumably would already have expertise and a strong commitment to the industry. But at least one experienced writer/editor among them should be put in charge to edit the others and sustain the quality of the writing.

Two schedules should ideally be maintained, one for the publication of the individual posts and another (obviously dependent upon the first) for the members of the team to work on creating them, with individual members available to substitute if a contributor unexpectedly becomes unavailable. The organization should promote the blog by, for example, including its URL on business cards (in addition to the URL of the main website). The organization should also promote it internally, by including prominent links to the blog within the site. The team members should also frequently leave comments to blog posts that deal with related topics on other websites. And of course they should always reply promptly and courteously to comments left on their own blog.

The “why” of solar blogging is obvious. The “how” of solar blogging, though this might differ slightly for different organizations, is clear. So the only question remaining is, “If you’re not blogging already, when will you start?”

For additional information about solar blogging, please contact me by accessing the About page of this blog. 

December 12, 2013

The Solar Right and the Arizona Test Case

Barry Goldwater, Jr., the son of the late conservative Republican Presidential candidate – and Arizona native – Barry Goldwater (who was defeated by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election), has always been very much a man after his father’s heart. A retired seven-term US Congressman, the younger Goldwater compiled a solidly conservative record in the House. Though retired from government since the 1980s, he remains a figure of some stature in Arizona’s Republican Party. In other words, he’s absolutely not the kind of person one would expect to champion a progressive environmental position.

I’ve provided a brief background on this man in order to give some context to what seems to me a surprising, and surprisingly heartening, development in American politics. For Goldwater represents one of the most interesting examples of an emerging trend that I call “The Solar Right.” If more conservatives begin to emulate his example, it will bode very well for the future of solar power in this country… and for the future of the planet.

Here’s the situation in a nutshell. Goldwater’s home state, Arizona, awhile ago approved net metering (NEM) for its citizens. Net metering allows homeowners who install a solar power system to receive credit from the utility for that part of the power their systems generate that they do not use themselves, but that is sent out into the electrical grid to be used by other consumers. This is commonly called “running the meter backwards.” For obvious reasons, net metering has been a major incentive for folks to go solar.

However, like absolutely any great thing that happens in this country, net metering has generated fierce opposition, and Arizona represents a classic case in point. The power utility Arizona Public Service (APS) claims that net metering was inherently unfair to those of its customers who haven’t chosen to go the solar power route, because solar customers are allegedly “shifting the cost” of maintaining the utility’s grid to non-solar households. The APS was so adamant on this issue that it spent a whopping $4.7 million on advertising to try to persuade the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) to set a very hefty fee on solar households, ranging from $50 to $100 per month, to punish those awful consumers for their wicked, green-and-budget-conscious ways. However, the public, according to a poll (presumably including many respondents from non-solar households), rejected the proposed fee by 81 percent.

This is, by the way, a classic case of a company looking out for its own interests under the pretext of defending the consumer. Even in situations in which part of the power that non-solar households use actually comes from the excess electricity from other households’ solar systems, they pay the entire cost to the utility, so the utility is getting compensated for energy it does not in fact produce. Therefore, it’s only right and proper for the utility to credit solar households for providing electricity to non-solar households. And for those periods during the billing cycle when solar households, due to insufficient sunlight, cannot power their homes through their solar systems alone, they take energy from the grid and pay for it, just like anybody else. As most people will readily understand, this situation doesn’t in any way represent a “state subsidy,” much less “corporate welfare,” as the Wall Street Journal and others claim.

But this arrangement, known as DG (for distributed generation), scares the pants off utilities, because it proves they no longer retain a monopoly over a given communities’ electric power. These fossil-fuel-driven power companies, with their expensive and aging infrastructures, dread being perceived as dinosaurs… which is exactly what they’re becoming. And the more households that go solar, the closer the utilities get to becoming completely obsolete. So it makes perfect sense for them to demand a large monthly fee from the solar consumer, in order to make choosing solar an unprofitable proposition. And a number of powerful right-wing organizations, like ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council), strongly back the utilities’ anti-solar stance.

Here is where Goldwater comes in. Mad as hell over the fee proposal, he decided to take action and co-founded an organization called TUSK (Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed – no, the acronym doesn’t work, but the name does suggest the tusk of an elephant and is thus intended to evoke the GOP). This “ostensibly Conservative front group” as the Wall Street Journal sneeringly called it, lobbied hard and otherwise generated considerable conservative support in opposition to the fee. TUSK even produced this highly effective ad, in which Goldwater personally spoke out:

Conservatives want – no, they demand – freedom of choice, whether it’s health care, education or even energy. We can’t let solar energy be driven aside by monopolies who want to limit that freedom of choice: it’s not the American Way; it’s not the Conservative Way.

As five of the commissioners on the Arizona Corporation Commission are Republicans, these efforts surely did not go unnoticed. In the compromise the ACC came up with, the Commission dubiously decided that cost shifting to the non-solar consumer was indeed taking place in Arizona and ruled to impose a fee on new solar households only. However, this fee was a mere $.70 per kilowatt-hour per month, which, for a 10 KW system, would come to just $7.00 per month: much, much less than what the APS had asked for. For the solar industry, it was both a defeat and a victory – a defeat because the Commission’s ruling set a dangerous legal precedent for the establishment of such fees at all; a victory because the APS did not get the kind of cripplingly high fee that would have destroyed the solar industry in Arizona. After all, in many parts of the country (though probably not in Arizona), an average day’s lunch costs more than $7.00.

Many of Goldwater’s conservative colleagues must have been taken aback when he broke with his Party’s mainstream in the most emphatic way possible on this issue. But when you think about it, his position represents one powerful tradition among the many, sometimes conflicting, strands within the Republican camp. ALEC, in its solidly pro-corporate stance, represents the authoritarian strain within the GOP. Goldwater, in his emphasis on personal “freedom” and “choice,” represents his Party’s Libertarian tendency. Ironically, in boldly asserting the consumer’s freedom of energy choice, he condemned “monopolies” as vehemently as any left-winger. But I don’t believe he was being at all contrarian or dismissive of “conservative values” – on the contrary. And it’s quite possible that his message may have struck a chord with at least some influential conservatives, so ALEC’s campaign to kill solar may well be undone… by the Republican Party itself.


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