Clean Energy and the Last Brand Standing

Solyndra is getting a lot of headlines, but the company’s high-profile implosion is the symptom of a renewable energy industry rationalization that has been long anticipated. It shouldn’t be a surprise or generate excessive hand wringing.

Whether it’s solar, bioenergy, power storage or any other cleantech vertical, there will be a lot of dead bodies littered across the market in the next 12 to 18 months. That is just a fact, and a natural outcome of an industry (finally) maturing.

Most importantly, it is a signal that we are moving from a period of technology innovation to one of market innovation, and therefore true mass adoption. And with mass adoption, the focus of corporate communications is necessarily shifting toward building brand credibility, loyalty, engagement and awareness.

The companies that have the strongest brand coming out of the industry consolidation cage match will be best positioned to be the last brands standing. Many executives I speak with expect only a handful of brands to survive the shake-out of each sector. The stakes are high, as brand equity has many implications: lower cost of capital, lower cost of customer acquisition, the potential to charge a premium, etc.

Brand ≠ Hype

But make no mistake, many of the companies that are perceived as having the strongest renewable energy brands today in fact do not.

Often funded by Silicon Valley investors used to the hype cycle and quick returns of media, ecommerce and high-tech companies, many of the cleantech brands now considered the darlings of their respective sectors will soon enough be dead and gone, or acquired for pennies on the dollar by existing conglomerates.

A strong brand is not just about hyping awareness, it is about delivering on your promises — to achieve business milestones, to hold up your end of a strategic channel partnership, to nurture employees, to provide a return for investors and to provide a benefit to society (economic, environmental or otherwise).

Many of today’s renewable energy brands have over-promised, and just as many if not more have under-delivered. Caveat emptor.

The Impact of China and “The Strategics”

While it is still too early to make iron-clad declarations of winners and losers, already some of the brands that will survive are starting to rise to the surface. Some of them are new, and some of them are familiar.

In the electric vehicle industry, for example, Tesla appears to have survived its start-up origins to evolve into an automotive brand with staying power, while the likes of Chevrolet and Nissan seem to have shifted laterally early enough to have carved out a future niche as well.

Similarly, multinationals in other sectors — chemicals, fuels, generation, transmission, infrastructure — are starting to play an increasingly prominent role in the looming brand wars, and may end up being the de facto renewable energy brands of the future. With market conditions buffet the renewable energy sector, many of these strategics smell good deals and are becoming more acquisitive.

At any rate, it seems fair to say that some of the ultimate brand winners will be ones we may not even know of yet, while others will belong to existing Fortune 500 companies, who buy early leaders, then apply their significant marketing muscle to enhance them further or subsume them entirely.

The other question hanging out there: where will the leading brands reside?

Given the emergence of China and Brazil as important players and the fact that the developing world is ripe for renewable energy deployment, it remains to be seen if the winning brands will be the usual suspects from Europe, the United States or Japan, or whether the companies will be based in the developing world.

Some brands from China seem poised for leadership. But will they have the foresight to invest strategically in brand enhancement on a global scale, something corporate culture there has not traditionally valued?

We will see. In the meantime, let the brand wars begin.

(This post also appeared on GreenBiz.com)

EV to be Most Hyped News of 2011: Survey

Media covering renewable energy and cleantech overwhelmingly expect the biggest news hype of 2011 to come from electric transportation, while they identified energy efficiency as the most deserving of coverage, according to my annual survey. With more than 70 respondents from newspapers, magazines, broadcasters and blogs, the survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of media expect demand for cleantech coverage to be greater this year.

The survey strongly confirmed one trend – the migration of content online; and appeared to shoot down another – lack of adequate budget. Nearly all of the respondents – 96% – said their work will primarily appear online, while almost 70% said that they would have enough resources to do a good job of reporting on cleantech this year. At the same time, there is a willingness to use content (video, animation, graphics, etc) produced by non-media sources (73% said they frequently or sometimes used content developed by companies).

In addition, the survey revealed some social media habits with regard to obtaining information, with Twitter (82%) by far and away the top choice of social tools for tracking news.  The RSS feed is also clearly not dead, with 57% naming it as the second tool of choice.

EV received 56% of the votes to be the most hyped sector in 2011, more than double the nearest competitor – smart grid, which received 20% of the votes. The only other technology that registered double-digit percentages was carbon capture and sequestration (16%).  On the flip side, media identified energy efficiency as the area that deserved the most media attention, with 42% choosing EE. This is ironic since I’ve often heard reporters say that they want to cover energy efficiency, but editors find it too boring (this is backed up by page views). The other technologies deserving attention mentioned by  more than 10% of respondents were: carbon management (20%); solar (13%); smart grid (13%) and water (11%). One of the most important sectors from an impact perspective, agriculture and foresty, got no votes.

As in previous years, the overwhelming majority of those surveyed (68%) said B2B coverage would take priority this year, with the remainder paying more attention to consumer technologies. Overall, the overall trend is also of continued interest in the sector – 62% expected increased demand for cleantech news among audiences

Interest in policy coverage also remains high, with nearly 80% expressing significant or moderate interest in tracking government developments.

Clean Energy: Too Many Interests, Not Enough Group

There is a lot of interest in clean energy. Here’s just a partial list of the US groups out there: American Business for Clean Energy,  Business Council for Sustainable EnergyEnvironmental EntrepreneursInvestor Network on Climate RiskBiomass Power AssociationRenewable Fuels AssociationClean Economy NetworkUS Climate Action PartnershipClean Energy WorksUS Clean Heat and Power AssociationSolar AllianceWe Can LeadAmerican Wind Energy AssociationAmerican Coalition for EthanolAdvanced Biofuels CoalitionWind CoalitionBusiness for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy,  Growth Energy,National Hydropower AssociationGeothermal Energy AssociationSolar Energy Industry AssociationSolar Electric Power AssociationCeresAmerican Council on Renewable EnergyAmerican Biogas Council,Carbon War RoomAlgal Biomass AssociationFuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy AssociationElectrification CoalitionAmerican Council for Energy Efficient EconomyGridwise AllianceDemand Response and Smart Grid CoalitionAmerican Energy Innovation CouncilBlueGreen Alliance, Water Innovations Alliance.

Remember, that is a partial list. And that doesn’t even include state and regional groups, of which there are dozens more.

Get the picture? A jumble of letters: “C” for council (five) and coalition (five); “A” for association (11) and alliance (four) and “S” for solar (three); plus at least four groups directly and indirectly touching “B” (for biofuels) and more than half a dozen groups broadly positioned around “E” for energy. What does that spell? Trouble with a “T”. At a time when the clean energy industry needs one powerful voice to drive policy and get federal and state lawmakers to actually do something visionary, what we are getting is a 100-part disharmony of sometimes clashing, sometimes overlapping agendas. With the recent shift in political winds in DC and many state houses signaling a tougher road ahead for a clean energy agenda, the need for that unified voice is even greater.

In fairness, an examination of the missions for the various groups often shows material differences in their focus, but how important are those differences in the broader picture? That is a question that we need to be asking ourselves.

The environmental NGOs – EDF, NRDC, WRI, etc – failed to influence national policy in a significant way during the first half of Obama’s current (and possibly only) term. But the truth is that, when it comes to getting more aggressive adoption of clean energy policies, the same can be said for the business interest groups listed above. A rationalization and consolidation of these groups is a reasonable expectation, and even if that fails to materialize, there is a strong need for an all-encompassing umbrella “organization of organizations” that rises above the petty jealousies and turf wars that often make the trade association, non-profit world ineffectual and scattered. Just as a consolidation of the cleantech industry itself is overdue, so too is one for the organizations that represent it.

Ironically, my involvement in the Clean Economy Network (CEN) was motivated by a desire for an industry defined by “distributed energy” to become more centralized in its approach to policy. Whether its CEN or some other group that occupies a higher, more unified plane, one thing is certain: faced with a torrent of cash-infused lobbying from big oil and coal companies, a drip campaign from dozens of groups representing a fractured clean energy industry won’t have the desired impact – rapid and decisive action from policymakers.

I plan on being in Washington, D.C. on January 24-25, 2011 to attend the first CEN business leaders summit, with the hope that at least part of the proceedings will be a serious dialogue on organizational strategy for the clean energy industry. It would be great if the representatives of all the groups owning patches of the industry can be there too to create a more cohesive quilt.

High Noon for US Clean Energy Leadership: March 21, 2011

A wise man once said that contemporary politics is fueled by two things: raising money, and a fear of angry mobs. OK, I actually said that. Nevertheless, it makes sense that the ultimate nightmare for DC lawmakers would be an angry mob with money. At the Renewable Energy Finance Forum-West this week in San Francisco, a gathering of top financiers, project developers, executives, etc, it was clear that there are a lot of angry and frustrated American businesspeople with money who are sick and tired of Washington’s refusal to treat renewable energy and cleantech as THE pillar of our future economic growth (not to mention a solution to our increasingly resource-constrained world). Not surprisingly during REFF, Beijing’s aggressive moves to become the cleantech power were repeatedly contrasted against DC’s cowardice and failure to act. Yet, so far the efforts to change the situation in DC by the broader clean energy business community have added up to only a sliver of the lobbying dollars spent by Big Oil and Coal, plus the occasional pilgrimage to DC by a few handfuls of business leaders to implore action (and increasingly that requested action is just short-term fixes, not long-term solutions). So with Solar Power International just around the corner; with WindPower coming up in May 2011; I have a question for Rhone Resch and for Denise Bode. Why are you gathering your mobs with money in Los Angeles?

Perhaps what’s not needed is the current drip campaign, nor “constructive engagement” with the representatives in DC, but blunt force trauma. Congress, and especially the Senate, needs to be convinced that the clean economy interest group is just as powerful as the fossil fuel lobby, with the money to back up its talk. Congress also needs to viscerally feel that the clean economy is a money-making, tax-generating, vote-swaying reality. So I have two specific calls to action for the renewable energy industry.

  1. For the next 3 years, EVERY major trade show for every sector of clean energy – solar, wind, geothermal, power storage, smart grid (thanks Gridwise Alliance Forum for being in DC already), should take place in Washington, D.C. Seeing is believing. If Solar Power’s 50,000 delegates, Windpower’s 25,000 delegates and other similar numbers descended on DC every year and disrupted Congressional limos, lawmakers might pay more attention.
  2. That 1,000,000 business people – employers and employees (present and future) – from the clean energy industry descend on the Capitol Building on March 21, 2011, and show the power and confidence of the new “industrial evolution”. Not NGOs, not lobbyists, but the real deal – CEOs, CFOs, installers, retrofitters, you name it. If we need a sea change in US energy policy, let’s put a sea of angry people with money at the doorstep of those failing to act.

Jeff Immelt of GE: you called Congress “stupid” because of it’s failed energy and climate policy. Will you sign on?

Jim Rogers of Duke Energy: you’ve argued that the most energy efficient economy will be the leader of the 21st century. Will you sign on?

Bill Gates: you want billions of dollars more investment in clean energy R&D. Sign up.

Tom Friedman of the New York Times: you clearly have a bee in your bonnet on this topic. Will you show up?

Being an optimist, I have already created an event page on Facebook, called the Million Business Voices for a Clean Energy Economy and another on LinkedIn. If there are at least 10,000 people signed up before October 10, this thing might have a chance. So spread the word.