BP Solar – Closing the "Grid Parity Gap"

Wednesday April 5, 2006

Last week I wrote a bit about BP Solar’s advertising and branding – it’s part of the marketing story, but definitely only part. Strategy is key.

BP Solar (North America) employs strategic marketing (though, how BP’s Alternative Energy marketing group which looks to be out of Houston, and BP Solar’s marketing in Frederick, as well as BP Solar’s overseas marketing groups work together is a curiosity). Vivienne Cox, BP’s Executive VP of Gas, Power & Renewables, said in November, and Karen Sterling of BP Solar’s North American marketing and communication’s group repeated to me, BP Solar’s goal is to drive solar to grid-parity – in other words, to make PV equal in cost to grid power for homeowners and businesses and to make it more widely available. That, says Sterling, is when solar will be attractive to more people.

BP Solar began collaborating with The Home Depot® in October 2004 to target the residential sector and with SunEdison to target the commercial and business sectors (like big box retailers) within select geographic markets. (SunEdison is working with Goldman Sachs, the investment house, and other financing institutions.) Grid-tied residential, commercial and business segments are BP Solar’s focus (off-grid, remote applications, not so much.) Recently, BP Solar engaged with Treasure Homes in California, leveraging the builder channel. (Unlike other cleantech marketers, BP Solar chooses to bypass, or has the fortune of not needing, the electric utility channel, going directly to consumers. That’s a good move – and another topic for another day.) BP Solar (NA) targets markets that offer the biggest solar incentives: California, New Jersey and Long Island. As for where to best leverage product in other markets, Sterling notes, “The marketplace changes, and it hasn’t been defined completely.”

The value propositions for solar PV, however, have been. To residential customers, PV is: clean, reliable, silent, pollution-free power that protects customers from the volatility of utility power…and “beautiful” deep blue, dark-framed panels. (BP did not ignore the issue of aesthetics.) BP Solar offers business and commercial customers roof systems, ground systems for large open areas, canopy systems for parking areas and walkways and building integrated PV – BIPV – in the form of rooftop tiles. The value propositions are: energy savings and other financial benefits – cost savings, protection against rising energy prices, energy efficiencies, revenue for ‘green attributes of solar (that is, renewable energy credits), and government incentives – as well as leadership in environmental stewardship. Commercial solar is (still!) emissions-free, silent and unobtrusive.

BP Solar has trademarked its programs (BP Solar Home Solutions™, BP Energy Solutions™, EnergyMax™). It is selecting qualified professional installers. Online customer support offers quotes and FAQs (though more technical information, similar to those put together by Xantrex, the inverter manufacturer, would be helpful.) Sponsorships include the BP Solar Neighbors Program™ and the Solar Decathlon (which Jeff Lyng’s team from the University of Colorado-Boulder has twice won which makes those of us in Colorado – and particularly those of us who supported passage of Colorado’s RPS – very proud.)

Whatever one might think of BP (the huge oil company, greenwashing), it is launching solar PV into the mainstream, across the collective radar screen – recognizing that clean energy is a good strategic investment for the company and its investors. In the Ceres recent sustainability investor report (“2006 Corporate Governance and Climate Change: Making the Connection”), BP scored very high in the oil/gas sector. And that’s great.

It would also be great if smaller players in this market could avail themselves of deep pockets, international brand name recognition and market share, too. Short of that, I’m hoping that BP Solar’s “continued innovation and technology gains across the solar value chain” will include next-generation semiconductor technologies to which BP can apply its ample marketing muscle – and Jeff Lyng and his team can incorporate into future Solar Decathlons!

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