Once of the greatest barriers to the adoption of new clean technologies is the upfront cost, with the resulting sticker shock sending consumers running. Many clean tech firms offer attractive financing packages, but fall down on marketing them effectively, or -- on an even more basic level -- adequately explaining them.

Key Issues In the Clean Tech Industry: The Role Of Public Relations

Keith Zakheim | Antenna Group


 
As the CEO of Antenna Group, a public relations firm with the largest and most experienced clean technology practice, we currently represent more than 40 clients in the space, from small startups pioneering new technologies to large multi-national corporations.  But despite the variety of our clean tech client roster, many clients are facing the same key issues, the first of which is
 
I. CREATING DEMAND
 
Many clean tech businesses are trying to market their products or services on the basis of selling points such as patriotism, public policy, personal responsibility, national security or mitigation of global warming.
 
Forget about it. While those marketing ploys may have worked for early adopters, clean tech firms will have to start thinking like retailers if their products and services are to enter the mainstream. 
 
They need to overcome objections, focus on benefits and make the purchase -- be it for a $15 million commercial rooftop solar system or an $50 LED lighting fixture -- as easy as possible. In other words, to make buying a clean tech product or service as attractive as buying the hottest new technical gadget or household appliance. 
 
Consumers should want to buy a clean tech product or service because it is the coolest, smartest and most economical thing to do -- not because it is the right thing to do.
 
Which is where PR comes in. PR has access to a highly effective chest of tools that can be used to stimulate demand, including testimonials, educational forums, social media -- and the usual, such as press releases and op-ed pieces. Clean tech firms can use PR to craft the messages that create buzz.
 
Specifically, here is some of the messaging that clean tech PR needs to address:
 
Affordable:
 
The environmental message falls largely on deaf ears. While European countries such as Germany and Spain are generating most of the world’s solar power, U.S. citizens are still debating whether global warming exists.
 
In the face of the failure of the environmental message, the way to communicate the benefits of clean technology is through the pocketbook. Even the most hardened of environmental cynics will respond to the financial message.
 
Tell a homeowner that a rooftop solar array will offset an amount of carbon dioxide that is the equivalent of driving 189,000 miles in a car, and they could care less; tell them that they will be getting a 15 percent annual return on their investment and you have their attention.
 
Reliable:
 
The clean tech industry is up against some major misconceptions, many involving reliability. The inescapable fact is that people are skeptical of new technologies. 
 
Despite all the information out there about solar, for instance, the belief is still widespread among members of the public -- and even on occasion among those in the clean tech media space -- that, for instance, homeowners won’t have any power if their solar system should malfunction for some reason.
 
For many, the image of solar is ineluctably tied with that of hippies living off the grid.   The industry needs to get the word out that solar systems are highly reliable, and that they are tied into the grid -- in other words, that homeowners won’t have to stockpile batteries in their garages in order to guarantee a supply of power.
 
Every new technology comes with its own set of reliability baggage, from the belief that LED lights that are too dim to the “range anxiety” -- or fear of running out of juice -- associated with electric vehicles. The job of PR is to dispel skepticism by disseminating the message about the reliability of new clean technologies.
 
Simple:  
 
In New Jersey, where Beckerman is based, solar is now an amazing deal, with a payback period of three or four years for a commercial installation and less than five years for a residential system, which leaves more than two decades of pure gravy in the form of free electricity and income from state renewable energy incentives.
 
New Jersey’s solar incentives have made it a national solar leader, second only to California in installed solar capacity and first if calculated on a per-capita basis. But solar still provides only a tiny percentage of the state’s energy. The same is true nationwide: 84 percent of Americans say they want to purchase clean energy, but only 3 percent do.
 
Why aren’t more home and building owners jumping on the solar bandwagon? Of course there are a lot of factors, but a major one is complexity.
 
The package of state and federal incentives that make solar such a great deal in New Jersey is so complex that many just don’t get it. Unless they are certified public accountants, prospective customers’ eyes begin to glaze over at, for instance, the mere mention of the 100 bonus depreciation allowance.
 
And although we are making some headway with regard to SRECs -- that is, Solar Renewable Energy Certificates -- there is still a long way to go.
 
The same is true of the technologies themselves. Many don’t understand how they work, and, as a consequence, don’t trust them. The job of PR is to educate the public about clean technologies and incentives so that they are as familiar with net metering and SRECs, for instance, as they are with cash registers and supermarket coupons.
 
Easy:
 
Go to any real estate open house and you will find a sign that says: “Buy this house for only $1,500 a month.” Never mind what the house costs or what you have to put down.
 
Once of the greatest barriers to the adoption of new clean technologies is the upfront cost, with the resulting sticker shock sending consumers running. Many clean tech firms offer attractive financing packages, but fall down on marketing them effectively, or -- on an even more basic level -- adequately explaining them.
 
In many parts of New Jersey, for instance, homeowners can install a solar system with no money down through loans from the utility company that are paid off through the generation of SRECs. But consumers would be hard-pressed to find any mention of this in many solar installers’ marketing materials. 
 
Clean technology firms need to take a tip from the real estate industry -- or even from auto dealerships. They should be educating consumers about how much their new clean technology purchase will cost them per month -- or even better, how much it will save them in energy costs over the life or the system or product.   
 
And, if they don’t have creative financing packages available to address the issue of upfront costs, they need to put them in place.
 
As PR professionals, we need to aggressively promote these financing strategies and their ability to broaden access to solar and other clean technologies.
 
In summary, as with any product, providers need to create demand by emphasizing affordability, reliability, simplicity and ease.
 
But they also need to …
 
 
II. BUILD A BETTER MOUSTERAP (INNOVATION)
 
Even the most efficient marketing strategies, however, will not overcome consumer objection to products that are inherently inefficient.
 
The original solar cell, which was invented in 1883, had a conversion efficiency of less than 1 percent. Today, after nearly 130 years of refinement, the typical silicon solar cell has an efficiency of only around 15 percent. Solar, which still accounts for only 0.15 percent of global electricity generation, is growing only because of government incentives.
 
In order to reach grid parity, we need to develop more efficient solar technologies. And in order to build a better solar mousetrap, basic research is essential. Many clean technology start-ups are now developing potentially game-changing products that may never move out of the prototype phase due to lack of funding.
 
We need a national energy policy, billions in investment in clean technology innovation, large-scale pilot projects and more. But, while we all endorse a free enterprise system led by the private sector, only the government has the resources and risk threshold to invest at a level capable of effecting large-scale change.
 
We are all familiar with the innovations -- from freeze-dried food to the Internet -- that were the outgrowth of government investment in the space, defense and other programs. If clean tech is to truly represent the third wave of innovation -- after the Industrial and Information Revolutions -- the government needs to get on board.
 
As I mentioned, Beckerman is headquartered in New Jersey, the location of the former Bell Labs building, which one of our real estate developer clients now wants to adapt to housing and retail uses. This building, which once employed 7,500 people and is nearly a quarter of a mile long, is a monument to American technological innovation.
 
Among the many inventions that Bell Labs scientists are responsible for are the transistor, laser, microwave, satellite communications, cell phone and fax machine. In 1954, Bell Labs scientists invented the world’s first solar panel, “The Bell Solar Battery.” Today, this magnificent building is shuttered, its long halls dark and empty.
 
Many of the Bell Labs inventions were achieved through public-private partnerships. If the nation is ever to achieve the level of technological supremacy in clean energy that it has in telecommunications, it needs the same level of commitment that produced Bell Labs, a small city of innovation, with its own bank and post office.
 
Some clean tech industry observers have called for establishing national “centers of excellence” in energy innovation -- the Bell Labs of the energy industry. As PR professionals, we may not have the political muscle to effect such change, but we do have the opportunity to promote excellence through our clients’ success stories.
 
The clean tech industry may not yet have access it would like to government-backed investment, but it does have access to intellectual capital in the form of its innovative products and services -- and it is the job of PR to leverage that intellectual capital to attract additional investment, both public and private.
 
We need to look on our clients’ achievements as “seed” stories that can be just as effective at attracting the capital needed to unleash innovation as seed money.
 
Which leads me to the third major issue --
 
 
III. GETTING EVERYONE ON BOARD (PUBLIC POLICY)
 
The public associates innovation with the Eureka moment, but in fact innovation does not take place in a vacuum. In order for their innovative products to reach the marketplace, the clean tech sector need a hospitable public policy and regulatory environment, with clear assurances of large-scale, long-term markets.
 
We have witnessed this first-hand in New Jersey, whose state SREC incentives have been proposed as a national model. Only when the state Board of Public Utilities was able to offer some certainty with regard to the long-term SREC prices were we able to begin to attract the capital that spurred the widespread implementation of solar.
 
As a PR firm, we do not typically fill the political and lobbying roles that result in smart public policy initiatives. But, as with innovation, we do possess of a bully pulpit in the form of our clients’ achievements, many of which are the outcome of public policy initiatives that we can -- and should -- include in our messaging.
 
New Jersey, for instance, has become the world’s sixth largest solar market through smart public policy, along with a small cost to utility ratepayers. Now it is about to become a leader in offshore wind as well with the immanent launch of the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the coast of Atlantic City.
 
This fertile public policy landscape has, in turn, attracted manufacturers who are being lured by the robust local market, as well as by New Jersey’s geographical position midway between the world’s two other strongest solar markets -- California and Europe.
 
The growth of solar in New Jersey is creating new jobs, bringing new ratables onto the tax rolls and promoting prosperity and energy independence.
 
The story of our New Jersey solar clients’ success cannot be divorced from the public policy story -- the two are intricately intertwined. And in telling that story, we are exporting our model to the rest of the nation while building a stronger constituency for game-changing public policy initiatives.
 
And where public policy is falling down, we, as representatives of the industry’s leaders, need to tell that story as well.
 
***
 
As we all know, American is falling behind in the clean technology race due to indecisive government support and lack of funding. But we also have been here before, as those who are old enough to remember the national furor at the Russians’ 1957 launching of Sputnik can attest. We are very effective at playing catch-up.
 
The longer we wait, however, the greater the gap will be. Also, to delay means to commit to investments in outmoded energy technologies that will have huge costs in terms of the environment, the economy and national security. We cannot fail to recapture our position as the world’s technological leader. The stakes are too great.
 
As PR professionals, we bear daily witness to the transformational power of our clients’ stories. By effectively telling their stories, we are able to boost sales and profits, thereby creating jobs and promoting prosperity.
 
Our mission now is to use our clean tech clients’ stories to effect the greatest transformation of the 21st century -- the transition to a new, clean economy.


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