Solar Garden

The Rise of Solar Gardens

At this point, it’s impossible for even the most ardent old school energy guys to hide from the bright sunny truth that solar energy is blazing a new path in the U.S.  It’s easy to choose from a multitude of statistics that support this point. For example, as of the third quarter of last year, solar had made up more than 1/3rd of all new generating capacity built in the country. That would have been unimaginable just a few short years back. Here’s another – 6,500 MW of solar was expected online for 2014, a 36% growth over the previous year.  And one more – the industry is 3x as big as it was just three years ago and growth is only expected to accelerate.

Solar’s growth has been fueled by on-site installations on commercial, government and residential properties as well as utility scale projects. These two drivers will continue to fuel growth, but there’s a third driver that could open up the market to an even broader consumer base. I’m talking about something that’s typically referred to as “Community Solar” or “Solar Gardens.” Simply, a Solar Garden is a solar project that feeds its energy to the grid and is sold to a group of subscribers. In the residential space, a homeowner may take a 5 KW subscription, which would be the size of an average home installation. The beauty of a Solar Garden is that it opens solar to people who live in apartments, don’t have a good roof for solar (ie. too much shade), and maybe don’t have a high enough credit score for a 20 year lease on their own roof. It also opens solar for businesses, faith institutions, and other organizations that don’t directly pay their electricity bills, or are in a lease situation.

It’s a really exciting new development and it doesn’t take new technology to make it happen. It’s just a matter of changing a state’s law to allow virtual net metering, which is a cousin of net metering, one of the key regulations that allows solar to flourish. That’s the process whereby you are able to get credit for excess solar production at your site, meaning that you are figuratively spinning your meter backwards. Virtual net metering works the same except that the solar you are getting is off site. When you use less power than your subscription, you would be credited for the excess power.

If you don’t think this could be a big deal, just think of all those apartment dwellers in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco and other cities. Combined with the non-residential space, this would millions of new potential consumers to the solar market. And it’s not just wishful thinking. Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota already have Solar Gardens or Community Solar laws, and the market is hot, as one recent headline noted, “In Minnesota, community solar market starting to take off.” Maryland has a chance to adopt an authorizing bill for Community Solar this year.  Other states are also considering action.

The momentum for Solar Gardens is going to build over the next couple of years. It just makes too much sense from a policy and consumer perspective. A simple change of net metering to include virtual net metering is all it takes in a state that already is favorable to solar. The bright sunny truth of a rapidly growing solar market is about to get even brighter and sunnier as Community Solar opens the door to millions of new solar consumers.

Purchasing Clean Energy without Getting Burned

Environmentally conscious consumers know that they can “vote with their wallet” by purchasing green goods and services, and by supporting socially conscious businesses. What many don’t know, unfortunately, is how to best choose their options. This is especially true in the clean energy space where a company’s marketing efforts, and the confusion of the marketplace may cause them to make unwise choices.

Presently, there are four ways that are most common for buying clean energy. You can install a solar system on your roof or property, purchase green electricity, purchase Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), or invest in energy efficiency upgrades (“negawatts”).  Each option comes with its own benefits and costs.  I’ll start by looking at purchasing green electricity.

There are a few pitfalls to avoid when deciding to buy green electricity from a retail electricity supplier. I’ve highlighted a few right here:

Certification and Verification

When you switch to green electricity for your home or business, nothing material will change for you and there’s no physical evidence of your purchase such as a piece of equipment. Sure, you have a contract that promises you green electricity, but that is not enough assurance for many people. One good way to know that you are actually getting the green power you are paying for is by making sure you buy green power that is certified and verified by Green-e. The folks who run Green-e require suppliers to demonstrate that the green energy they are selling matches the green energy they are buying. This is done through a third party audit. I know of no other certification and verification processes that meet the high standards set by Green-e , though they may exist.

Teaser Rates

I heard one clean energy company executive on the radio telling the audience that switching to wind power from them would cost $8-$12 a month. That sounds reasonable until you dig a little deeper and learn that they are offering a three month “teaser” rate. The affordable teaser rate of 9.7 cents/kwh or so expires after three months, at which point the consumer is subject to incredible price spikes through a variable rate. What might those spikes look like? The company’s fixed price deal, which tells you the kind of rate they think they need to make off their customers over the course of a year, ranges from  12-13.5 cents/kwh. That’s the difference between paying $8-$12 a month or $40-$50 a month. When you put it in annual terms, you really get the picture. With the higher rates, you could be facing an electricity bill that is as much as $600 more than you would otherwise pay. That’s for an average home. If you are a bit wealthier than average and have a larger home, chances are your annual bill could hit close to $1,000.

Avoid “teaser” rates at all cost. Despite the pleasant-sounding rationale you may hear from the energy company, it will end up being a bad deal for most of you. Why? Because as an executive at one of these companies told me, they really offer the teaser rate for one reason – they know that 80% of their customers will forget to keep checking their energy rate after three months. That’s right. They have it down to a science. They know that you will sign up thinking that after the teaser is over you’ll just switch elsewhere, but that 80% of you never do.

Dig Deeper

Another aspect of disingenuous marketing you may see is a company that purports to be the little guy fighting the rest of the “big greedy” energy world. Like all deception, there’s probably a grain of truth to it. But do consumers know the fat profit margin these guys are getting for the energy they are selling you? In order to understand this, you have to understand the main components that make up the cost of green energy. Back to that 13.5 cent wind power example. In this case, the green part of that power, the part of that rate that actually goes to the wind farm is likely around 1.5 cents.  Yup, that means you are paying 12 cents/kwh for brown power, which is the exact same power your utility offers at rates as low as 8.5 cents/kwh.  So why such a huge discrepancy? Two words – Profit Margin. The company probably makes in the range of 50%-%70 margin on the product they sell you. I say probably because I’m making an educated guess based on market conditions. I have not seen their books. There are other smaller factors as well, such as cost of capital, but I believe margin makes up the largest chunk of the difference.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for profit and the competitive free market. What I think is morally and ethically unjust is sticking your customers with exorbitant rates in order to feed the profit margin needs of your investors all under the guise of being progressive. A company is either a consumer friendly, 100% honest and transparent company that offers the most competitive rates it possibly can or it isn’t. I think in order to be the former, a clean energy company has to choose steady organic growth over VC -backed hyper growth. This means they should not try to make exorbitant profits on the backs of their customers.

Another example of a questionable marketing practice is a company that sells green power among a suite of products, but then works to prevent clean energy laws from passing at the state or federal level. Their green power products are probably legitimate, I’m not questioning that. But if your intention is to “vote with your wallet,” than you may be voting for the wrong candidate. A portion of the dollars you spend with them goes to lobby against the very thing you are trying to promote.

Conclusion

The thing all of these practices have in common is their reliance on uneducated and/or overstretched consumers. It takes a little homework and a little more time to find out the truth behind these marketing efforts. Or it takes the ability to say “no” to certain products that you know are designed to take advantage of your lack of attention (ie. variable rate or “teasers”). Even in this case, I don’t want to paint too broad a stroke here. There are some variable products that are tied to the variability of the utility standard rates. Those are fine because they are actually market responsive, and you know the premium you are paying every month. But this last point just serves to prove once again how much a consumer needs to be educated before venturing into the clean energy field by purchasing green power from a retail electricity supplier.

Food as the New and Improved Pharma

The old saying “you are what you eat,” seems to have more often gone in one ear and out the other for most Americans. In modern society, there has been a serious disconnect between the quality and nutritional value of the food we eat and our health. That may finally be changing. A new branch of medicine known simply as “culinary medicine” seeks to put diet right at the heart of standard medical care. Tulane University even has a Center for Culinary Medicine. While it focuses on the traditional nexus of food and medicine (diabetes, obesity, heart disease), I’m hopeful that this is the start of a much broader look at this issue. That seems to be the approach of a new web site called “Dining with a Doc” that “celebrates food as medicine.”

Beyond connecting our diet to our health, we need to connect our diet to our planet. The impact of our meat-centric American diet on the environment is astounding. Studies show that more greenhouse gas emissions are produced from our industrial food chain than from the entire transportation sector combined. The optimal food choice for the planet is a plant-based choice. However, we don’t all have to become vegans overnight to make a difference. Just as switching to 25% wind power is better than nothing, reducing your consumption of meat and animal products by 25% is a great start.  Instead of a vegan diet, we can call this an “Eco Diet.”

Once you get it, you’ll get it. Making smart food choices is good for you and the planet you live on.  An Eco Diet cleans up your body and cleans the environment.  Need help? Just find a good nutritionist or a culinary doctor and you’ll be on the right path.

Cleaning Our Air and Supporting Our Economy

ALA PA LogoChoose PA Wind Logo

Pennsylvanians hear a lot about energy choices, especially when it comes to offers to save money. But perhaps a more important message is getting lost in the marketing noise of the energy world. Pennsylvanians have the option of choosing energy that cleans our air and brings economic development right here in the commonwealth. Through a new campaign called ChoosePAWind, consumers in the PECO territory can sign up for Pennsylvania wind power at affordable rates.

The program is not only promoting local clean, renewable wind power, it seeks to build community support for green initiatives. Participating organizations earn donations to their groups for every enrollment they get. The double benefit of this is the ability to directly support energy sources that clean our air and help the local economy while also galvanizing your own community into action.

At the American Lung Association, we know that there’s a direct link between the pollution coming out of fossil-fueled power plants and lung disease. Decreasing pollution from these power plants means lowering the amount of nitrogen-oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter that we all breathe. Doing this will lower incidents of pre-mature death, asthma, and other chronic conditions related to poor air quality. There are several ways to make this happen, from federal or state legislation, to simple voluntary actions such as switching to wind power. The more people that choose Pennsylvania wind, the better our air will be.

According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), Pennsylvania has 25 wind energy projects, totaling more than 1,300 megawatts of production, ranking us 15th in the nation.  They produce enough energy to power 330,000 Pennsylvania homes. The wind industry has put more than $2.7 billion in capital investment into our state and pays landowners $3.6 million annually in lease payments. The tax dollars from wind contributes to the public coffers, while attracting new manufacturing facilities as well.

Keeping your energy dollars local, cleaning up the air you and your family breathes, working with your community to promote sustainability – these are the key benefits of simply choosing Pennsylvania wind.

Deb Brown

President & CEO

American Lung Association Mid Atlantic

Jim Spencer

EverPower CEO and ChoosePAWind Founder

Why Chestnut Hill United Church is Supporting ChoosePAWind by Joy Bergey

Choose Pennsylvania wind to power your home. What a wonderful idea. It’s no-brainer to me to choose electricity whose generation doesn’t exacerbate climate change, pollute the air and water, or generate nuclear waste that will last for thousands of years and society hasn’t a clue how to store safely (PECO’s “regular” electricity comes largely from fossil fuels and nuclear plants, with these attendant woes).  Choosing wind power that’s “home grown” right here in state also means that you’re helping to create sustainable, well-paid jobs for our fellow Pennsylvanians.

It’s my contention that choosing to use clean electricity in our homes, workplaces, and schools is likely the biggest thing we can do to slow down global warming. Can most of us give up our cars? No. Or afford an electric car powered entirely by solar panels? No again.

To that point of solar panels: The price of solar technology has come way down in recent years, and continues to fall. And yet, a homeowner in Pennsylvania would still have to lay out thousands of dollars up front to put PV panels on her or his roof. (In my case, I’d be willing to do that, but my property is “treed out,” meaning that I’d have to take down several large trees to expose the roof to adequate sun to make the PV panels work. And since I live quite close to the Wissahickon Creek, those large trees of mine are providing other valuable eco-services, like helping to sop up storm water and prevent flooding.)

So, if you don’t have the roof, spare capital, and/or time to investigate, purchase, and install solar panels, do something that’s actually much easier, and every bit as effective: Buy electricity generated by the wind. Buy Pennsylvania wind, specifically. (If you’re reading this, you probably know that “buying local” offers all kinds of benefits, both economically and environmentally. The “buy local” benefits extend to energy as well.)

I’m delighted that the congregation that I’ve belonged to for two decades, Chestnut  Hill United Church (in northwest Philadelphia) is participating in the ChoosePaWind campaign. We’ve already designated that the income from this campaign will be used to further our social justice work. It’s a win-win-wind situation.

On Brand, Climate, and Thoughts on Moving Forward

Extreme climate change is coming, perhaps already causing havoc in some areas of the world, yet we as society can’t seem to agree on whether to take any action to stop it. There are feel good personal and community actions that help, but won’t by themselves solve the problem. There are a few states and cities adopting laws and regulations to help fight the problem. But the kind of economy wide, national and international action we must adopt now to avert the worst outcomes is beyond our reach. It has been for decades. We need to try something new. Perhaps one approach would be to reconsider how we environmental advocates brand climate change and our call to action. In other words, if we were to be selling this product, as environmental advocates, what category does it even fall into and what are the primary drivers or assumptions of that category?  Who are our competitors in this category?

I don’t think there’s agreement about what category our product is in. There are some who put it in the political issue category, in which case it is competing with other political issues for priority and voter attention. Others put it in a consumer product kind of category, in which it’s competing with other products or services in the sustainability realm. Still others think of it as a part of the protest category, part of a suite of issues that generate non-violent direct actions, protests, and marches. I’m sure there are others, but these examples suffice to make the point that the actions we take, and the messages we create can vary greatly depending on the category we think extreme climate change belongs to.

The products or services that we sell as part of our campaign depends on the category as well. Our call to action could be an email to a legislator, a vote, or participation in a rally. Or our call of action could be the purchase of green electricity or certain kinds of climate friendly products. Frequently, our call to action is a donation to an environmental NGO.

The competitors in our category also depend on our definition of the category. Our competitors could be issues vying for political action or they could be other services or products aimed at the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) market. Our macro competition is inertia, but that’s the case with almost every product out there.

So now that we have some ideas on category and competition, we may be able to better “market” our product and the consequent call to action. This means we’ll have to decide on just a few approaches rather than dilute our brand with too many competing messages.

What do you think our category is? Our brand position? Our competitors?

Authentic Marketing Through Community Engagement Part Three

 This is part three of a three part series. Please visit deepergreenblog.wordpress.com to access the first two parts. 

There are many example of great CLM campaigns.

One personal example is the Green Neighborhood Challenge (GNEC) I created and directed at Clean Currents.  GNEC was fairly simple early on, evolving over time as we learned how to perfect this particular form of CLM. We found the deep green, environmentally focused activist and worked with them to sign up their community to GNEC. The fact that the pitch for the campaign came from a community volunteer was huge. The premise of the campaign was that for every clean energy enrollment we got, we would donate money to a green project the group was working on. In the campaign execution, we would provide material and speakers to talk about the threat of climate change. We also would send out an eNewsletter highlighting positive actions of GNECs and providing additional educational information. The GNEC leaders had open access to our staff and were brought into the office on a few occasions for food and drinks. If they ever had any problems, I would personally get involved. We created unique presentations for GNECs to use, such as a fun wind power “demonstration” for elementary school students. In one of our later iterations, we had a summer picnic where the entire company came and we recognized the efforts of the best GNEC leaders, with everybody in the company personally thanking them. GNEC cemented Clean Currents firmly in the communities where we operated it. The credibility of the campaign rested on the brand’s credibility as a company that was environmentally and socially conscious, plus we didn’t pay the GNEC leaders anything. The donations never financially benefited the volunteer leaders, but rather went directly to the community project.

Another campaign that looks like CLM is the SweetGreen Passport program. In this initiative, SweetGreen (a restaurant chain focusing on healthy and local salads) partners with health and fitness providers that are local to their restaurants. These partners provide free classes (yoga, dance, etc.) that are exclusive to SweetGreen Passport participants. When the classes happen, participants often share the experience via social media. In addition, and perhaps the part that really makes this “community,” is the connections people make with each other at these events based on their shared interest in health and wellness (or anything else!).

CLM is a leading edge marketing strategy that is still evolving, but fits a powerful need in our society – the need to belong to something. By creating a community where likeminded people can come together and feel “at home,” CLM is addressing this need directly. At the end of the day, you will not only have new customers, brand ambassadors, and high morale among your staff, but you’ll be using your organization to make society a little bit of a better place.