Energy Storage is Having a Moment: Five Tips for Communicating About It
Note: This blog was originally posted by Ben Finzel on LinkedIn on September 15, 2014.
I’ve been involved in energy and environmental policy and communications long enough to have witnessed a number of different “moments” for various energy technologies: the rise and fall (and rise again?) of fuel cells; the debut of larger, more efficient wind turbines; the increased efficiency of solar panels; the promise of “revolutionary” biofuels; etc. etc. Some of these technologies spurred growing new markets (witness wind and solar - yes, even with the uncertain PTC and charges of solar panel “dumping” from some quarters). Others have yet to fully emerge as “mainstream” technologies.
The difference in whether or not these technologies have emerged has often been directly related to how they were communicated. Many renewable and advanced energy technologies are complex and difficult to understand. Investors may engage thanks to promises of lucrative ROI, but if policymakers, the press and the public don’t understand a technology – or believe it’s viable or applicable to their lives – it might never leave the investment stage.
The wind and solar industries have, over the past ten years, been able to capitalize on the relatively simple understanding required to grasp their technology – The wind blows! The sun shines! – along with dramatic increases in efficiency, reductions in cost and engagement by big new players. Indeed, they’re succeeding in part because they are easier to understand and they have aggressively played up their benefits.
Over the past year, the combination of state action (Hello California!) and increased national interest has promised yet another of those “moments” – but this time for energy storage. The coming wave of new functionality has been termed a “tsunami” by some and a “renaissance” by others.
Having been here before, I’m reserving judgment on whether or not this “moment” will transition into a full-fledged change in the marketplace. But assuming (hoping) that this really is energy storage’s time, here are a few thoughts on how best to communicate its value, purpose and worth most effectively:
Set expectations: Energy storage, in and of itself, is not the silver bullet that will solve all of our energy problems. There are still technical challenges, cost considerations and regulatory and policy hurdles that must be overcome. The worst thing proponents of energy storage could do now is overhype the technology: we saw how well that worked out for fuel cells a decade ago.
Provide viable, current examples: We’re an instant gratification society (even more than we were before: ironically, thanks in part to technological advances). Providing examples of product applications that are working today to enable functionality we can all understand will help ensure the industry transitions from its “moment” into a sustainable, long-term success story.
Describe storage in terms of the solutions it can enable: It’s not enough to simply say that storage is “revolutionary.” Why is it so helpful? What does it make possible? By linking adoption of energy storage technologies to an outcome such as greater adoption of renewables and decreased environmental impact of energy production (in one example), energy storage can be made relevant to everyone, not just scientists.
Resist the temptation to go deep on the details: Yes, it’s important to qualify the technology and demonstrate that it’s real, but going too deep on the details is best saved for academics and relevant investors. Too much of a focus on the technological details can, paradoxically, make the solution seem too obscure and/or not ready for prime time.
Find compelling, well-spoken champions and put them front and center: Every new/emerging technology needs its physical avatar. We all want to know about the latest and greatest innovation, but we really embrace and understand new technologies when we’re also captivated by the people who describe them to us (e.g. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk). That doesn’t mean that energy storage won’t be successful without a “rock star” spokesperson, but it does mean that the industry needs a relatable, understandable, compelling person (or persons) to describe the technology in terms that everyone can understand.
I’ve participated in several conversations about energy storage in the past year, including an off-the-record roundtable I hosted with industry leaders, advocates and media this spring. I’ve been reminded in these interactions of the significance of the growing demand for power and the need for new technologies to meet that demand. That confluence of events may be what energy storage needs to propel it from the sidelines to the mainstream. If it does, I hope its proponents will remember the importance of clear communication to the long-term success of the industry. To move beyond a “moment,” it’s all about how you define your position and what you do to stay there.