Why Solar's Image Isn't So Bright

Industry's Branding Woes Mount Amid Bankruptcy Flap, Federal Funding Issues and Mixed Messages

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Solar panels, finding favor in suburban America, are moving off the shelves at Lowe's and Home Depot. But solar's image as an alternative source of energy to boost the country's power grid -- as opposed to home water-heating units -- doesn't seem so bright. The debate these days is no longer solar vs. oil or solar vs. coal, but rather solar vs. itself, as high-profile business fiascos, often involving substantial tax-payer money, land on front pages.

Just how burned is "brand solar"?

The most recent example of the damage done to the technology comes courtesy of Solyndra, a solar-energy manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy in September, citing its inability to compete with government-funded manufacturers abroad. Prior to the filing, the Obama administration guaranteed the company a $535 million U.S. loan, and the president himself referred to the company as a positive example for the industry.

Solar has been plagued by uphill battles.
Solar has been plagued by uphill battles. Credit: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

The bankruptcy is not just a headache for the administration, it's a setback for a global industry that can't seem to find its way out of a hole it's been digging for years.

Alternative-energy giant First Solar, which itself received billions in loan guarantees from the government, announced recently that its CEO was stepping down after boosting panel manufacturing capacity during a slump, according to Bloomberg News. The company immediately saw its shares decline more than 25%.

Meanwhile, a group of largely anonymous U.S. industry players recently joined forces to blame China for their woes. The Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing is asking the U.S. government to impose anti-dumping sanctions on China's solar-energy manufacturers that thrive on government funding. The coalition is arguing that China's cheap imports are putting the U.S. manufacturers out of business and slashing jobs (though the anonymity requested by all but one of the coalition's seven members suggest that despite their frustration with Chinese subsidies and "dumping," they are fearful of rattling relationships with the Chinese manufacturers upon whom they still rely).

Aside from going after China, most of what the industry is doing is lobbying. So far this year, SolarWorld has spent $90,000 on lobbying and SolarWorld California, which shows up separately, spent $40,000 on lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org. The company spent around $400,000 on measured media for its combined product portfolio, according to Kantar. (Solyndra has spent $500,000 on lobbying in 2011, and First Solar has spent $480,000, according to OpenSecrets.)

In other words, the solar industry isn't exactly rushing to persuade the public these recent setbacks aren't indicative of wider issues.

But a couple of major players are still making big bets and numerous studies point to solar's growth in the U.S. The key at this point -- aside from not making financial mistakes -- is for companies to highlight their technology, educate the general public and stakeholders on the potential for low-cost, widespread power sourcing and, if applicable, tell a story of self-sufficiency.

"Even though there are a lot of mixed messages, we continue to focus our message on our technology," said Milissa Rocker, communications manager for Renewables & Environment at General Electric. The communications team is promoting the relevance of the new technology and solar in GE health-care devices such as X-ray and imaging machines.

GE's new plant in Colorado is not supported by federal subsidies, she said. This self-sufficiency is not a key message for the company, even though it does represent progress in an industry trying to wean itself off subsidies and make the case for solar as a competitive energy source in a free market. However, the PR team is prepared to make the point when prompted -- and lately it's been prompted a lot, she said.

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