Shift patterns

Search history: According to Cathy Debenham, YouGen, has seen a shift in consumer interest for renewables over the last year
Search history: According to Cathy Debenham, YouGen, has seen a shift in consumer interest for renewables over the last year
Cathy Debenham, YouGen, offers an insight into consumer interest in renewables over the last year.

Although we run a renewable energy website, you wouldn’t have thought it in February last year. Virtually all the questions we were asked were about solar PV (or the Feed-in Tariff for solar PV). After the home page, solar PV was easily the most visited section of YouGen, with nearly double the monthly traffic of the next most popular section (biomass boilers).

Now we see a different picture. If we get asked about solar PV it’s generally a troubleshooting enquiry from someone who has already installed a system. The biomass and heat pump sections have both overtaken solar PV in the popularity stakes, and it only just squeezes in to the top 10 most visited pages. Visit numbers to solar PV are down to a third of last year’s figures, while overall visits to YouGen have increased from 28,500 visits last February to 38,000 this year.

So what went wrong? And what can we do to turn things round?

I’m not going to rehash all the trials and tribulations of the past year, because we need to look forward. However, neither am I going to accept the passing of all blame to the government. Yes, the Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) readjustments were thoroughly badly managed, but so was the communication surrounding it, much of which came from industry and installers.

I’ve lost count of the number of intelligent, educated people who were interested in installing early last year, but for one reason or another didn’t get in before the end of March, and now think that solar PV isn’t a good investment. This is a major own goal. While selling to a deadline is a great way to sharpen minds and encourage a decision, it makes sense to do it in a way that doesn’t close the door to those who don’t make it through on time. In some cases the door seems to not only have been closed, but locked and bolted.

Given that the mainstream media are less likely to report good news stories, we have to be more creative about getting the continuing attractiveness of solar PV to potential customers. Most of the coverage so far has been on the money pages, and has focused on solar PV as an investment, with emphasis on return on investment and payback as the key benefits. We need to be imaginative about getting people’s stories into local papers, property magazines, onto radio and TV in ways that demonstrate a range of different benefits.

While focusing on return on investment was effective in the boom time, it doesn’t seem to be working so well now. Recent research by Delta Energy and Environment found that most British customers are not yet thinking in terms of investment, and prioritise fuel bill savings over payback. It also tested what people say their motivations are against what actually prompts action and found that savings on fuel bills plus a long warranty is the most compelling combination.

Another way of looking at it, suggested by Ray Noble of the Solar Trade Association, is to look at the benefit in terms of pre-buying a proportion of your electricity – thus insulating yourself against future price rises. The more electricity used on site, the more attractive this proposition is.

Research by the Energy Saving Trust (EST) published in Keeping FiT in 2011 found that 37 per cent of owner occupiers would consider installing some form of microgeneration. Delta’s research found that 60 per cent find solar appealing. The key barriers are upfront cost, insufficient fuel bill savings and the lack of grant or subsidy.

Since the EST research the prices have fallen significantly, energy prices have continued their way-above-inflation rise, and the Green Deal can help with part payment of a solar installation. The challenge to installers is to go in to each sale with an enquiring mind, find out which benefits fit the customer they are talking to, and reignite the enthusiasm for solar PV.