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Solar power: a PR problem?

This is the kind of headline that gets my attention: “Does the solar industry have a PR problem?” (from June 13 on CNBC.com and later on usatoday.com).

I thought the technical challenges alone were plenty: off-peak storage, transmission, cost effectiveness, availability of raw materials, production scale, etc.

The article calls solar power “the greenest of green technologies.” Nonetheless, the article cites a recent survey by solar industry advocate SolarTech and San Jose State University, which found that even among Silicon Valley residents solar power has serious problems.  Only 39 percent said solar power was reliable and only 11 percent said it was affordable.

The problem, according to even supporters of the industry, is that current solar technology is not nearly advanced enough, and that government subsidies, while encouraging early adopters, discourage the long-term development of more cost-effective and efficient technology. Thus, the technology under-performs and the perception is that it will never be a viable solution.

So, in answer to the article’s question, yes, the solar industry has a PR problem. But….. it’s always easy to blame, and pin your hopes on, PR. First and foremost, the industry has significant technical problems that no amount of PR can overcome.

Ironically, even environmental groups cannot agree on how to proceed with solar power development: Some groups are upset over the siting of large solar farms on hundreds of acres of previously undeveloped land (and Native American archaeological sites), rather than using brownfield locations.

Finally, there’s a rising tide of people who don’t want to see large solar farms, or their noisy, higher-profile cousins (wind farms), become part of their neighborhood landscape. Yes, solar and wind have significant “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) opposition – just like chemical plants, power plants and nuclear facilities.

As the PR battles heat up, the Natural Resources Defense Council (quoted by usatoday.com on June 2) has pointed out “there’s no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs. To get energy, we need to do things that will have impacts.” Get used to that idea – and the accompanying technical and PR challenges.

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