In conversation with CleanTech News, Tor Valenza AKA Solar Fred, Founder of Unthink Solar, shared the importance of marketing for the solar industry, the challenges the solar industry is currently facing in the US, and more.
1. In your own words, what is Unthink Solar?
UnThink Solar is a boutique marketing and communications firm for solar, energy storage, and cleantech. When I started working in solar in 2008, solar was still stuck in marketing 1.0. There was very little happening with social media, content marketing, and video. So the name came out of my wanting the solar companies to not just RE-think their solar marketing strategies, but to step back and Un-think everything they’ve been doing, then start with fresh approaches to marketing, communications, and public relations.
UnThink Solar’s mission statement is to “Be bold for solar. Stand out and educate.” That’s important because I’m not calling for solar companies to just pull stunts. I’m encouraging them to sure, pull stunts, but if you’re that bold, then those stunts have to have a point. They should be educational, and the people seeing those stunts (hopefully recorded on video) will say, “Ah, I get it. That means something to me and I agree with your company, and yes, your solutions resonate with me, so I’ll content you and/or tell my friends about you.”
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also do traditional PR, social media, and content marketing. To make a difference these days and stand out from competitors, you need to do both.
2. What is the importance of marketing in advancing Solar power in the U.S.A?
Solar is still just 3% of the U.S. grid, and that includes utility solar. If we’re going to get to 100% renewable energy one day and mitigate the worst of climate change, we need to inspire the public, businesses, utilities, and our national government to transition to solar and other renewables as quickly as possible. Great marketing and public relations that make people care can accomplish that goal.
The U.S. needs successful solar manufacturing and development to grow jobs and installations. Great marketing helps both small and large companies to grow. In the business-to-business segment where I specialize, many manufacturers and solar developers feel like they are a commodity, where their customers only care about price. Great marketing and communications are important for making prospective customers realize that solar panels, inverters, and other equipment are not alike, so the price isn’t the only thing that matters. These brands have to communicate about their unique added value features that may cost more but are worth it.
3. What challenges do you think the Solar industry faces in the U.S.A?
Right now, the biggest challenge that the U.S. Solar industry faces is an anti-clean energy Trump administration that continues to support fossil fuels more than renewable energy. We’d all like to think that there’s a level playing field, but that’s not the case. Policies can make a huge difference in growth.
Certainly, we’ll still grow but it will be at a slower pace under the Trump administration’s policies that attempt to boost coal, oil, and gas at the expense of solar.
The other challenge is our COVID-19 economy. Credit is tighter and home and business owners may be less inclined to take on debt to go solar. There are other financing methods, such as solar leases and solar power purchase agreements, but these also require great credit. With more people out of work in the U.S. and businesses failing, there will clearly be a smaller pool of creditworthy residential and commercial customers. The same go for cities, counties, and states that are receiving less tax revenue, constraining budgets.
The only sector that won’t be affected as much will be utilities. People always need to keep the lights on, and their phones charged, so their revenues will largely remain stable. The only question is their commitment to going solar sooner than later and potentially stranding coal and gas plants.
4. Do you think the Solar industry has a role to play in the economic recovery of the U.S.A post-COVID-19?
Absolutely. The solar, wind, energy storage, electric vehicle, and electrical transmission industries should all be leading on creating new jobs that help us to quickly transition to non-fossil fuel energy production, infrastructure, and transportation. The only question is whether our national, state and local leadership will support that goal… and working at some very complicated and important details with legislation and regulations.
5. What do you think the future holds for Solar energy in the U.S.A?
There’s no question that solar installations in the U.S. will grow. Our transition is already happening faster than anyone predicted when I started in 2008. If I look into my Solar Fred crystal ball, I predict warp-speed rapid growth if Biden is elected. If Trump wins another four years, U.S. solar installations will still grow, but to use the same Star Trek analogy, it will be on “impulse power.” Nevertheless, full steam ahead, Scotty!
6. Unthink Solar helps Solar energy companies create business strategies. Why do you think this is important?
Marketing strategies support business goals. I like to think of goals as mountain peaks and strategies as the different paths that can get you to that peak.
There are numerous paths to get to the top of the mountain. Some are easier than others. Some are more expensive than others. Some take more time than others. And some paths lead to a dead-end, and you’ll never make it to the top, so you need to “UnThink” your strategy and start up the mountain again.
Tactics—PR, blogs, newsletters, SEO, web design, branding, messaging, advertising, customer service, etc—are the tools you use on your chosen path. You can use all of them or a selection of tools. The right combination will get your business moving along to the top of the mountain. The wrong combination or misuse of those tools may cause delays getting to the top, even if your chosen and thoughtful strategic path was clear.
Consequently, you need to have both great, creative strategies, good tools, good people who know how to follow the plan and use those tools, and then strong, great execution to make it to the top without, you know, weather delays, COVID19, and other unexpected boulders that unexpectedly come along.