Effective, inclusive communication about solar energy and its benefits is crucial for solar to realize its full potential. Engaging communities directly, utilizing a variety of mediums, and telling stories that highlight customers that look like America are all communication strategies that can help expand solar adoption and solar careers in underrepresented communities.
To collect best practices, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) launched the Inclusive Solar Outreach Awards, which recognize campaigns that successfully use strategic communications to increase solar energy adoption and/or solar workforce recruitment and retention among a diverse target audience.
The inaugural awards opened in March 2022, with winners announced in September. The five winning teams offered many examples of best practices that can help guide other communications professionals in their solar energy campaigns.
In 2023, DOE incorporated the Inclusive Outreach Awards as a category in the 2023 American-Made Sunny Awards for Community Solar.
Here are some questions to consider when creating a solar energy communications campaign.
WHY DOES MY COMMUNICATION NEED TO BE INCLUSIVE?
Adoption of residential or community solar can reduce energy burden for individuals, especially those in frontline or disadvantaged communities. Low-income households spend 8.6% of their income on energy costs, or three times more than non-low-income households. For families at or below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level, the average energy burden is 16%, or nearly 1/6th of household income. Counties with higher energy burdens have higher premature mortality rates, more residents experiencing fair or poor health, and lower than average life expectancy.
Transitioning to solar energy can help households across the country save money on their electricity bills, reduce their environmental impact, and improve resilience. However, many low- and middle-income (LMI) households have been left out either because of lack of funds, low credit scores, language barriers, or because their neighbors haven’t gone solar—one of the biggest drivers of solar adoption.
A more diverse population of Americans can enter the solar energy workforce as deployment continues to speed up. However, the solar energy workforce does not currently reflect the diversity of American citizens since opportunities to join, stay in, and advance in the solar workforce have not been equitable for all groups of people.
Leading organizations have recognized these gaps in solar adoption and solar workforce recruitment and retention and are starting to target more diverse audiences in their solar energy communications campaigns.
HOW DO I SET MY CAMPAIGN GOALS?
Examples of targeted, effective, and inclusive campaign goals could include but are not limited to:
- Increased solar adoption rates among the target audience
- Savings on electrical bills among the target audience
- Decreased energy burden among the target audience
- Reduction in pollution or other environmental harm due to solar adoption in target communities or areas
- Increased knowledge and positive sentiment among the target audience about the benefits of solar energy
- Increased opportunities for the target audience to join, stay in, or advance in the solar workforce
- Increased solar jobs in the target communities or areas.
Where appropriate, set quantitative goals around each of your communications strategies. Examples:
- Speak with __ number of people at each event / Number of people to speak with at each event
- Convert __ percentage of contacts made into subscribers / Percentage of contacts to convert into subscribers
- Increase promotional email open rate or click-through rate by __ percentage / Open or click-through rate on promotional email
- Engage __ people in a social media post/campaign / Number of people that engaged with a social media post
These metrics can be used to identify where in the process the target audience is getting filtered out, or even leaving the process, to help you identify what steps need to be better supported.
HOW DO I IDENTIFY MY TARGET AUDIENCE?
The size and demographics of your target audience will depend on your goals. Do you need to reach 30 people or 300 people?
To identify potential audiences for your campaigns, you can use DOE’s Disadvantaged Communities Reporter, which allows you to explore disadvantaged communities (DAC) that have been identified as part of DOE’s Justice40 program. These communities have been identified using thirty-six (36) burden indicators that reflect fossil fuel dependence, energy burden, environmental and climate hazards, and socio-economic vulnerabilities.
Energy Outreach Colorado, a winning team, knew they had enough solar credits to reduce the energy bills of 30 families. They focused their outreach efforts on a roster of households that had already used their services, in a disproportionately income-deficient neighborhood with significant diversity. In their case, the small size of their target audience allowed them to quickly accomplish their goals with a grassroots campaign.
In the case of Solar Landscape, who needed to enroll 1,500 households in their solar program, a broader campaign was necessary, and included activities across the state of New Jersey. For such a big audience, a website, webinars, and even a call center were necessary to meet the needs of interested households.
Finding a related organization that may house members of your intended audience can also help you identify target customers. Solar United Neighbors worked with a community land trust that was already serving LMI households through their affordable housing program, offering a built-in audience (and a trusted messenger).
WHAT TACTICS AND MEDIUMS ARE MOST EFFECTIVE?
Your target audience will determine which tactics and outlets are most effective.
- Word of mouth education, especially through trusted ambassadors, may be the best way to overcome hesitance to consider solar adoption.
- Partnerships with community-based organizations can help to build trust with specific communities and help you understand the needs of the communities you’re targeting. They can also help you to understand what the community needs to receive the information—for example, if events will be more accessible if they’re held in the evening, or if they provide food or childcare.
- In-person presence at local community events can increase brand awareness and trust, and thus increase engagement with door-to-door visits, emails, or social media marketing.
- Print materials such as fliers and postcards should be available at events for interested customers to take home. Ensure the materials are in multiple languages if your target audience requires it.
- Webinars can be a useful way to explain the benefits and answer questions about solar in person (without having to be “in person”). Webinar recordings and slide decks can be used in perpetuity as a simple introduction to your campaign.
- Websites are a simple way to compile all of your information and resources—for both your target audience and partners or media interested in helping to amplify your campaign. However, remember that many communities don’t have reliable internet access and may depend solely on their phones to access your information, so ensure your content is mobile friendly.
- Quality storytelling and visuals, including photography and video, can increase the emotional impact of your campaign.
- Media outreach can be helpful in getting the word out to an established audience. Consider incorporating the above storytelling and visuals into your media pitches.
- Geo-targeted social media advertising is always a useful tool in reaching people in a very specific target demographic.
HOW DO I EFFECTIVELY ENGAGE THE TARGET COMMUNITY?
Identify community organizations that have built trusted relationships with residents in the target audience to serve as ambassadors (see examples from many of the winning teams below). Ensure you have a presence at events organized by these organizations and other local community centers. Understand the cultural norms and language of your target audience.
Initiate conversations with people who may benefit from your campaign and use their feedback to adjust your approach as needed. Their voices can also be used to show the impact of your goals (see Lightsource bp’s campaign below).
Identify barriers that will need to be overcome for your campaign to be successful. Many of the target audiences in the winning campaigns had already been exposed to predatory business practices from retail energy suppliers. Because the teams knew that ahead of time, they were able to adjust their strategy to ensure they were meeting people where they are.
HOW DO I MAKE MY LANGUAGE AND WORD CHOICE INCLUSIVE?
Translate your resources into your target audience’s language of choice, including providing translation services at events, to enable better understanding of the material and develop trust in that community. See Energy Outreach Colorado’s campaign below, which developed informational materials in both English and Spanish to equip their neighborhood project ambassadors with information about community solar.
Use gender-neutral, non-discriminatory language in your materials. Symmetry Magazine, a publication of SLAC National Laboratory, has developed a style guide that provides an overview of key terms and guidelines on specific topics like aging, disability, gender, and race.
HOW DO I ENSURE MY DIGITAL CONTENT IS ACCESSIBLE?
Digital accessibility refers to how all people are able to use a website or digital experience, regardless of abilities or disabilities. With one in four adults in the United States having some type of disability, digital accessibility is crucial to reaching as many people as possible. In addition to helping spread your message, creating accessible digital content is simply the right thing to do. Below are some resources to help you design accessible content:
An Introduction to Accessibility – Digital.gov
- This overview was created with government websites in mind, but provides an easy-to-understand introduction to the topic of digital accessibility with many additional resources within.
Best Practices for Writing for the Accessible Web – Digital.gov
- This resource contains a high-level list of dos and don’ts for creating accessible web content.
Making the Web Accessible – World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
- This collection of strategies, standards, and resources to make the internet accessible to people with disabilities includes free online courses and video tutorials.
- This customizable quick reference contains success criteria and techniques to meet WCAG 2 standard requirements.
18F Accessibility Guide – 18F
- This resource is intended to help develop accessible products, in addition to the standards defined by the U.S. Access Board’s Section 508.
The inaugural Inclusive Solar Outreach Awards honored communications campaigns that sought to increase equitable access to solar energy benefits, including but not limited to electrical bill savings, reduced environmental impact, increased resilience, and opportunities to join, stay in, and advance in the solar workforce.
Entries were judged on how well the entrant’s campaign was designed to increase diversity and equity in the solar industry, how effective its communication strategies were, and whether it achieved its desired objectives.
Celebrating Solar Career Paths for Veterans
Lightsource bp (San Francisco, CA)
Campaign Goal: Workforce Recruitment and/or Retention
What they excelled at: Human-centered storytelling
This campaign highlighted the solar industry's power to create meaningful career opportunities for underserved populations such as veterans. The campaign told the stories of 50 Texas veterans who participated in a solar apprenticeship program that provided on-the-job training and a path to a future career in solar.
Lightsource bp used the campaign to amplify the voices of the participating veterans, empowering them to identify their own biggest challenges and explain how the program helped them build skills and relationships to overcome those challenges. This goal of this storytelling was to encourage other contractors to create similar apprenticeship programs for veterans, thus expanding this underserved population’s presence in the solar workforce.
How the campaign was executed: High quality photography and video of the veterans was distributed to local, national, and trade press; posted on social media; and packaged for the media on an easy-to-use website.
Solar for Environmental Justice
Energy Outreach Colorado (Denver, CO)
Campaign Goal: Community Solar Subscription
What they excelled at: Audience targeting
The main goal of this campaign was to reconnect with energy-burdened households that had previously been assisted by Energy Outreach Colorado (EOC) to educate them about the benefits of community solar and enroll them in a free program. The project focused on a disproportionately income-deficient neighborhood with significant diversity in a single ZIP code area in north Denver.
Because EOC had strong community connections and an established presence in the neighborhood, the team used a grassroots approach to activate a small network of neighbors that served as project ambassadors and spread information about the offerings. Through word-of-mouth sharing, 30 households became aware of the community solar offerings and enrolled in the program, each benefiting from an average savings of $500 per year over the next five years.
How the campaign was executed: Neighborhood project ambassadors, equipped with simple informational materials in both English and Spanish, spread the word to other community members.
Energizing Communities in New Jersey
Solar Landscape (Asbury Park, NJ)
Campaign Goal: Community Solar Subscription
What they excelled at: Community engagement
Solar Landscape provides community solar energy to thousands of homes in New Jersey, more than half of which are LMI households, per the state’s Clean Energy Program mandates.
To meet their goal of providing solar energy to more than 3,000 new households, Solar Landscape engaged in a grassroots communications and community engagement strategy to educate residents about the benefits of solar—and the novel concept of community solar itself. Part of this effort included outreach to New Jersey's underserved communities and LMI families who stood to benefit the most from the clean, affordable solar energy.
Solar Landscape partnered with trusted messengers with built-in audiences at local organizations across the state, including nonprofits, public schools, food banks, municipal governments, and more. Their outreach messaging and tactics focused on the benefits of the state program to its communities, including cost savings, workforce development, community support, and advancing environmental justice.
How the campaign was executed: Solar Landscape utilized a diverse mix of bilingual communications and outreach tactics, including a call center, informational webinars, marketing materials exhibited at community events, and a website (in English and Spanish) to engage and aid prospective and current subscribers.
Solarize – Community Solar Across New York State
Astral Power, Powered by Neighborhood Sun (Silver Spring, MD)
Campaign Goal: Community Solar Subscription
What they excelled at: Digital media and metrics tracking
The Solarize campaign was launched by Astral Power, with support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and their Clean Energy & Climate Smart Communities Program. The campaign encouraged community solar adoption in rural upstate New York, especially among LMI households. The team set quantitative subscriber goals for each of the four towns they were targeting, and developed a far-reaching communications plan that included digital advertising, print materials, and in-person outreach.
Vital first steps included building trust about the benefits of community solar, which is why Astral Power’s communications efforts were centered on using local channels and community boards in collaboration with trusted civic leaders, Climate Smart Committees, faith-based groups, agricultural groups, nonprofits embedded in their communities, and affordable housing communities. Their work with these entities helped increase brand awareness, and as a result the team saw a quantifiable increase in web traffic, email open rates, and social media reach.
How the campaign was executed: Social media posts created by Astral Power and community partners; Facebook, Instagram, and Google ads; small, intimate webinars and in-person meetings; yard signage; and attendance and live presentations at local events.
Share the Sun LMI Campaign
Solar United Neighbors (Duluth, MN)
Campaign Goal: Residential Solar Adoption
What they excelled at: Community engagement
With their “Share the Sun” campaign, Solar United Neighbors (SUN) leveraged their proven solar co-op model to increase access to solar energy among LMI households in Minnesota’s Duluth and Arrowhead areas, which have a large percentage of residents below the poverty line.
SUN identified their target audience by working with a community land trust, One Roof Community Housing, which provides affordable housing and conserves land for future generations. Through crowdfunding and contributions from SUN and Minnesota utilities, the program was able to help 34 families in the land trust go solar.
How the campaign was executed: Earned media coverage; direct engagement with the target community; a Facebook group; and an informational webinar.
• Learn more about the Inclusive Solar Outreach Awards program.
• Explore SETO’s research in equitable access to solar energy and solar workforce development.
• Find solar energy resources for a variety of audiences.
• Learn the basics of how solar works.
• View other SETO prizes and challenges.
• Sign up for the SETO newsletter.