Thursday, September 13, 2012

[Solar] Power to the People?

Finally, the beginnings of a great case study on solar power.

In a September 12 article in The New York Times, "Chain Stores Said to Lead Firms in Use of Sun Power," we learn that a significant number of giant retail stores, such as Walmart and Walgreens, which are large boxes with flat roofs, are turning those roofs into economic and environmental assets.

How so? They are installing solar panels — and, in some cases, wind turbines — to feed power to the stores.

This is great news for the growing number of “green” advocates in our country, which should be all of us. With plans to continue solar installations, the article notes that this strategy makes this segment of the retail sector leaders over most other industries. And with leadership comes responsibility.

It is clear from the article that economics is driving the new phenomenon, as costs of such installations have plummeted and fuel costs can be locked in. This story, along with all the other benefits, needs to be broadly told. In case they have not done so, and I have seen no indication otherwise, these leading stores should join together and create a communications campaign focusing on their new “green” drive, which will demonstrate that one can do well by doing good, and thereby encourage other businesses to act similarly.

Customer comments and endorsements would be helpful. A few spokespersons from the environmental and the retail sector could lead the charge. A webinar and both traditional and social media programs telling the story to other businesses will provide an important service to them and also a customer and key opinion leader sales advantage for themselves. This is a great topic for tweeting. Reporting could also cover the issues businesses are curious about: more detail on costs, installation and maintenance problems, whether solar feeding provides sufficient power, customer appraisals, how the big box story can be translated to other sectors, etc. Finally, there should be a periodic progress report to keep these messages in front of target publics.

The story emphasizes that "turning the roof into an asset" is a shift in mindset for business leadership. Unfortunately, the story fails to point out that there is a major problem with the U.S. energy grid, which must be solved if other business sectors are to go in the same direction.

The old system of “one-way” power flow covering many parts of the U.S. is not sufficient to create a smart grid—the new paradigm of integrated systems offering two-way power flow, control and information sharing. Utilities need to adjust their view of the grid architecture to embrace distributed generation and work with other parties to create an optimized solution.

A large numbers of diverse and widely-scattered generation sources must be able to collaborate effectively with utilities to meet consumers’ and business’ current and future power needs.

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