Bouncing Back: Lessons from the Front Lines of Solar

As we round the corner to nearly three months in quarantine, CPMG is fortunate to collaborate remotely with those on the front lines of the solar industry, including installers, developers, manufacturers and recyclers. Over the last week, we had some insightful conversations with a number of them to see how they’re faring in the days of COVID-19.

From working digitally to reassessing the customer landscape – one thing is certain: These companies are poised to bounce back from COVID-19. While challenges certainly remain, we believe the prospects for solar are strong in Q3 and Q4. We distilled our conversations into three lessons, and a “quarantine reading list” we think you will enjoy. Stay safe and read on!

Lesson 1: Get on board with Zoom, but don’t build your business around it.

Love it or hate it, video conferencing is here to stay. Most solar installers and developers are having Zoom calls with prospects at various stages of the solar decision cycle. Carl Ramsbey, Head of Business Development at CAM Solar, puts it this way:

Talking with customers via Zoom and Skype had its learning curve, but everyone rolled with it. Our company as a whole took our installation hiatus during COVID to brush up on our Zoom etiquette and customer service strategies. As we work with customers via Zoom, we found always having a professional appearance and demeanor on camera to be appreciated. Equally effective is having our video on during all calls, even if the customer prefers not to. This “putting a face to the voice,” has definitely helped us close deals remotely.

However, not everyone we polled uses Zoom to create connections with clients and customers. AJ Orben, VP of Business Operations at WeRecycle Solar, has maintained a more BC (Before COVID) communication style. He says:

Call me crazy—I love cold calls and outbound marketing. As many states remain in lockdown, conversation is a welcome reprieve. There’s been an equal balance in making and taking calls for my team during the pandemic; it provides an opportunity to build real, meaningful connections with our partners and clients.

That being said, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. And there’s still nothing like a one-on-one meeting to develop relationships, says Helen Brauner of Austin-based developer 7X Energy:

While working with customers remotely is effective, it’s helpful if I’ve met them in person at least once, especially when negotiating an agreement where trust is important to the relationship.

Lesson 2: Power usage is up during COVID, but so is the interest in solar + storage.

Photo courtesy LG Chem/BusinessWire

Staying home leads to more energy use, with higher energy bills, especially with summer AC use just beginning. Additionally, uncertainty being the only thing certain, homeowners want to be able to access additional, continuous energy they can depend on.

Residential installers across regions and markets report that as energy bills are rising sharply, customers are seriously considering solar (and storage) during the pandemic.

Tim Sylvia at PV Magazine reports on a survey conducted by LG and The Harris Poll which found that there has been a 13% increase in people who are now considering solar since the onset of Covid-19. Further, website traffic to LG’s battery storage site sometimes tops 100% increase year over year. These numbers are impressive, and it will be to your benefit to effectively speak to these new customer priorities.

Lesson 3: This is a marathon, not a race. Finish strong.

Solar companies acknowledge that they have taken a hit during the pandemic, especially in terms of installations, but most are looking to re-emerge in the next quarter or so, stronger than ever. Yann Brandt, of the popular newsletter and website SolarWakeup, surveyed a multitude of installers and developers about their business operations and outlook AC (After COVID).

His findings show that residential solar sales are down 22% when compared to BC sales in February. However, 58% of respondents say that currently they are at or above pre-pandemic sales levels. 42% of these companies are hiring for sales and working capital positions, with credit given to the federal Payment Protection Program (PPP) to bridge the gap. 

Richard Klein, President of Quixotic Systems, gives a personal take. Klein runs his commercial solar business in New York City, at the heart of the coronavirus outbreak. Richard reports that while New York’s reopening guidelines have not yet allowed installations to restart, commercial solar project leads continue to come in:

We’re fortunate to continue to get leads during COVID. It’s all through our own reputation, contacts, and companies that we’ve worked with before. And, at the end of the day, the finances for commercial solar are actually rather good right now. Paybacks in New York for larger systems (our primary market), are generally in the 3- or 4-year range. When you look at the current volatility of the stock market, it may not be a stable investment. In comparison, especially if you have capital to invest, solar is a better option.

The overall sentiment in the industry is one of cautious optimism for Q3 and Q4, but only if we can weather the next few months of the pandemic’s lockdown orders.

Final Thoughts

The industry is no doubt taking a hit during COVID, but we’re poised to bounce back stronger than ever as customers, partners, and advocates of solar realize its value. This is a good time to reassess your marketing efforts and get your house in order. If you’re interested in scheduling a marketing planning call, contact us.

CPMG thanks all its contributors to this piece. We will continue to write articles such as these to keep you abreast of this very dynamic situation, and we encourage you to share this article and continue to support solar energy, wherever you are!

Our Quarantine Reading List

1. An informative New York Times piece on the very real concept of Zoom Fatigue and how to deal with it.

2. A Forbes Article on 9 ways to stay positive during this time, we’re especially fans of number 6 and 8.

3. New York Times article on the inevitable rise of renewable energy, despite SEIA’s predicted job losses due to COVID.

4. PV Magazine’s Tim Sylvia reports on why people in quarantine are actively exploring solar energy.

5. David Byrne of the Talking Heads (!) discusses why other states should be like Texas when it comes to wind power. This article is part of his new website: Reasons to be Cheerful. We are on board!

By Zubin Segal