11/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Smart Solar Marketing

A window of opportunity has opened in the world of solar power. With the cost of solar panels decreasing as well as expanded state and federal incentives, the average American can now have a realistic reason to go solar.

But there's a problem: Americans still believe that solar energy technology is too expensive, unreliable, and hard to purchase. As a result, solar comprises less than a fraction of 1% of U.S. electricity generation and is selling to only a small group of early adopters. To overcome these misperceptions and create a robust marketplace, the solar industry must begin to market solar energy like Coca-Cola sells soda or McDonald's sells hamburgers. Essentially, the industry must create a greater demand for solar energy than exists now. For the solar power industry to grow and attract mainstream buyers, it must create a new "buzz" about the technology. From a marketing perspective, if granite counter-tops are in demand for new homes, solar should be too.

Today, states and the federal government are spending a considerable amount of money on solar incentives. In addition to creating these financial inducements, part of the public funding should be used to teach people about the financial advantages and overall benefits of having solar energy in their lives. No amount of tax credits is going to get Americans to buy into solar if they don't think it is reliable. States must start to think and act like retailers. By creating new marketing initiatives, solar incentive programs can help potential customers understand that solar power is both a smart financial investment and a reliable source of energy, and that there are many new state and utility financing programs that make buying solar as easy as financing a car.

Increasing consumer interest is not the only reason that a better marketing strategy is important. The more consumers invest in solar panels, the more green jobs will be created. There are examples where this marketing strategy is working in states like Arizona, California, Connecticut and Oregon, and in the Department of Energy's "Solar America Cities" partnership. These state and federal programs are headed in the right direction. Just as states compete against one another today for technology, corporate investment and manufacturing jobs, they also compete for clean energy jobs. If solar providers don't see a robust market in one state, they will just move their operation to another. With that company could go hundreds of green jobs, and the wealth that's created by economic opportunity.

To be effective retailers and compete in this new green economy, it is important for states to learn how to market solar effectively. Recent research by SmartPower, an energy marketing nonprofit, found that in the clean energy area, the traditional "environmental" or "save the planet" message is not compelling to the broader public. However, when renewable energy is depicted as a cost-saving measure, the public is more likely to adopt solar. Consumers must hear the positive message that solar can reduce a homeowner's annual electric bill by as much as 60% and increase a home's property value an average of $20 for every $1 annual reduction in utility costs (Source: U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department, CNN.) The industry needs to do a better job of showing that a solar home is a wise investment.

So, while the future of solar looks bright, solar programs, state clean energy funds and the industry must learn to tell its "value" story. Doing so will mean stronger state economies, more jobs, a cleaner environment and another step toward energy independence.