Friday, March 18, 2011

SJSU insights into slow solar adoption

On Friday, SJSU students and other industry experts presented their latest thoughts on how to speed adoption of residential solar power in the Bay Area. The occasion was a live Internet broadcast entitled “SolarTech Consumer Perception Webinar.” (About 90 people logged on to the broadcast.)

The webinar built on the consumer survey done by five Sbona Honors Program students: Faith Ebrahimim, Irene Foelschow, Morgan Hancock, Jennifer Sarvian, Tam Tran — in the marketing program supervised by Prof. Rob Vitale.

At the webinar, Sarvian introduced the group’s findings. Moderating the live session was Bob Couch of Orogen Marketing, the industry marketing guru who guided the students to their successful conclusion. All the prepared slides for the webinar have been posted to the SolarTech website.

Their presentation was supplemented by an industry panel consisting of Doug Payne (SolarTech), Jeanine Cotter (Luminault), Jessie Denver (City of San Jose and SJSU) and Andrew Yip (PG&E and the California Solar Initiative).

After the students pretested their survey, they diversified their risk by distributing the survey using three separate approaches: mailed (postage stamp and everything), email link and then in person. They obtained 224 answers, but limited their analysis to the 163 respondents from Santa Clara County.

The demographics were generally representative of potential solar buyers: 81% ages 45-64, 81% with some college degree, 74% making $100+K. The only concern was that — compared to the averages for Santa Clara County and for homeownership — the survey dramatically underweighted Asians and somewhat underweighted Latinos. (There is no reason to believe that race plays the same role as income or education in buying a $20K power system.)

Of the respondents, 11% already own solar systems. A total of 55% had done some research into solar purchase, and 49% intend to buy a solar power system.
After Sarvian presented the demographics, Payne summarized some of the other findings. Not surprisingly, consumers were most concerned with price (97%), followed by reliability (94%), warranty (94%), customer service (93%) and financial incentives (91%).

What distressed the panelist was that 83% of those planning to buy a systems won’t do so for at least two years. Yip (a SJSU EE graduate) noted that among California counties, Santa Clara County has by far the greatest adoption under the CSI subsidy program, with 15.3 megawatts and 3,472 systems. (The next largest was Fresno with 9.7 MW and Alameda with 2,065 systems.)

Cotter (CEO of a leading San Francisco installer) also was surprised about the reliability concerns, given that systems subsidized by CSI are required to have a 10-year all-inclusive warranty.

As with other SolarTech-sponsored projects completed by Sbona Honors students, the full report will be posted to the SolarTech website. Still, the webinar and the slides gave a sense of why several industry professionals found the SJSU student findings surprising and provocative, with important implications for how the industry should move forward in the future. (If anyone’s interested, several of the students are graduating in the spring and available for hire.)

Update: the report and slides are available to SolarTech members on the SolarTech website.

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