Editor’s note: This is the sixth interview in the #Solar100 Thought Leaders series. More interviews can be found on the #Solar100 page.
The two journalists-turned-editors Julia Pyper and Anna Wintour have much in common when it comes to their roles in their respective industries:
In their ability to read and report on the times in a way that shapes public opinion, in their early starts studying their future beat, in their formal positions as editors for Vogue and GTM respectively, in their roles as industry power brokers—what Anna is for fashion, Julia is becoming for Cleantech.
In this interview, Julia takes a wide-angle lens on the solar industry and also shares her best practices for startups looking to grow their media presence.
Julia Pyper is the “Anna Wintour of Cleantech Media” and this month’s #Solar100 thought leader.
Starting in Cleantech
Richard Matsui: I read recently that you were raised on a horse farm and credit your chosen beat to growing up in Canada. What drew you to working in cleantech and solar in particular?
Julia Pyper: Cleantech journalism combined all my passions: I always wanted to work in journalism to tell stories, to educate and, quite frankly, to support democracy. At the same time, growing up with family in the energy industry, I have always been interested in energy and climate issues.
Canada is a resource-based economy, and several people in my family work in oil and gas. My uncle is a former CFO of Enbridge, a natural gas distribution company, my cousins are surveyors who go up to the oil sands, and my brother works for Kubota, a tractor company dependent on the fuel economy—everyone in Canada knows someone who has either worked in or been influenced by the oil and gas industry.
I think we need to be cognizant of the role that oil and gas plays, not just in Canada, but in the U.S. as well. It is silly to think that oil and gas will go away tomorrow. And similar to the U.S. coal debate around coal workers, you also cannot abandon the people that work in these industries. That said, I want explore strategies to diversify economies, because being reliant on fossil fuels seems shortsighted. People will want those resources for a time, but they are finite.
Driven by my desire to see a cleaner and better world, Cleantech journalism allows me to explore these complex topics. Let’s see what new features, business models, and technologies we can come up with.
RM: You started the Empowering Project as a side hustle—what is the Empowering Project and what are you hoping to add to the conversation on renewables?
JP: I love storytelling and bringing in human elements to reporting. Last year I went to Haiti and worked on my first mini documentary, titled ‘Empowering Haiti,’ to try and cover energy issues in a different way.
Haiti is a case study on the critical role of clean energy in developing economies. Getting locked into a fossil fuel future is dangerous. Further, fossil fuels can be impossible to put into place because of the industry’s prohibitive infrastructure costs and technical requirements. Millions of people will miss out on the benefits electricity brings if they hold out for a fossil fuel power plant. Cleantech solutions are not some hippie initiative—solar can be deployed rapidly and is proven to enable and empower communities in ways that fossil fuels cannot.
One year after ‘Empowering Haiti,’ I am exploring other opportunities to continue the energy discussion under the Empowering Project. I want to investigate topical issues like political partisanship in energy, and find ways to address and move beyond that partisanship.
RM: Of the pieces you have worked on for GTM, ClimateWire, and elsewhere, which (if any) has been the most controversial, and why?
JP: “Why Conservative White Men are More Likely to Be Climate Skeptics.” I wrote it when I was at ClimateWire and the New York Times had an agreement with them, so it ended up running in the New York Times as well.
On the one hand, the findings are not surprising—conservative white men think conservatively. Considering that climate change requires people to adapt to something that is hard to see and feel, it is not surprising that conservative people would be less inclined to take action.
However, spelling it out is controversial. No one likes to be told that they are wrong.
My mother sent it to a family member, and let’s just say it started a debate.
RM: Was the goal of your piece to start a debate?
JP: No, my goal was to understand how people were thinking about the issue and how their worldviews influence their likelihood to take action. My piece was based on actual research by university researchers.
That piece brought to life how deeply people’s positions and worldviews influence how they think about progress and the economy. It is a really tricky topic to report on—people were telling me, “You’re white, why would you write that?” Other people would say that I did not go far enough in my reporting. No matter what you write, you have to get a thick skin.
RM: We’ve been seeing an increase in cleantech startups and startup incubators (Powerhouse, Greentown Labs, Urban Future Lab, etc.), and with that, a lot of media being done in-house. As a veteran journalist and senior editor, can you share best practices for startups looking to get their word out?
JP: Frankly, I think you need to do it all as a startup. A few suggestions:
- Thought leadership is how people build brands online. Write blog posts. Share articles and add your two cents to them. Pitch contributed articles to established trade publications. Be part of the conversation.
- Social media can be challenging if you have a very lab- or tech-based product, but in general, establishing your company on social media can go a long way. Social media, coupled with traditional media, is effective in establishing a company voice.
- Tie what you’re doing to what people already know and care about. For example, a new technology is especially interesting when it is addressing a longstanding problem.
- Do not assume everyone has the same level of passion that you do at your startup. Make it fun. Gimmicks sometimes work because you are just trying to get people’s attention, and there is so much competition for people’s attention.
- Take advantage of your unique perspective. If you have data, share some of that data. Opower actually did a good job posting some of their insights on their blog. People shared those links, and it created fodder for reporters to build upon in their stories. If you’re a company with data to share, I would recommend that strategy.
RM: Can you share examples of B2C and B2B companies that have done their marketing effectively?
JP: People like aspirational products, they like products with a cause, but they also like quality and convenience. I think B2C cleantech companies that hit on all of those points in their marketing will be successful. So, obviously, you have Tesla. Nest was also groundbreaking in this regard. And I think the startup SolPad, while it still has a lot to prove, did a good job of making and marketing a cleantech product that looked cool and generated buzz. They took cues from tech giants and appealed to what consumers already know and care about.
Not every company is selling a product like that, though. When it comes to marketing a product or service that centers on price, I think Ohmconnect does a good job of telling its story to customers with the simple messaging: “Save energy. Get paid.”
B2C marketing can be very exciting, though I think in many ways it is the work behind the scenes that makes the most successful companies. The marketing strategy must always be backed up by a quality product and strong business execution.
On the B2B side, EnergySage, while a B2C company, has effectively reached out to the business community. They have put effort into establishing thought leadership at speaking events and through blog posts. I think eMotorWerks has also been successful, evidenced by the company’s recent acquisition by Enel and list of strong partners. The company achieved this by offering a high quality technology, but also by speaking at a lot of events and sharing a steady stream of news.
RM: Any advice for B2B companies serving utilities or other audiences that seem especially difficult to reach?
JP: A lot of startups attend big conferences hoping to catch the speaker off stage. That’s not a bad idea by any means, though perhaps difficult to scale.
Accelerators can play such a key role, especially from the foreign utilities perspective, in creating a low-pressure environment for different groups to meet and discuss challenges. The new global energy accelerator Free Electrons event has done this successfully by bringing together a number of utilities and companies from around the world.
Joining the right accelerator can be a great opportunity to build credibility with B2B audiences, because there is only so much that social media can do to build those kinds of relationships.
RM: Are there areas that you currently think are being under reported?
JP: Yes—energy access. A lot of European players are active, perhaps because they are closer to the continents of Africa and Asia. I find the U.S. market tends to be more inward looking, however, this is a ripe opportunity for U.S. companies to develop and share energy solutions abroad, and that deserves coverage. Community choice aggregation is another story to watch.
The Solar Industry
RM: You cover the solar industry and policy as part of your beat. What do you think are the top 3 challenges in solar today?
JP: On the consumer side, we are seeing a tension between rapid growth and profitability for the residential installers. The idea of commoditization of solar is gaining momentum; regional players are starting to do quite well. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out the right model for that sector. How do you keep consumer interest growing?
On the utilities side, the trade case is one of the biggest challenges. We have no idea how that is going to play out at this point, but the outcome will definitely impact the utility scale market. If passed, people are saying that Texas solar installations may not make financial sense, which is a massive market to cut off.
PURPA has been a big issue as well, with a lot of the utility scale market relying on it. Lawyers are saying that it is going to be one of the biggest battles to come.
The Solar Startup Landscape
RM: Can you name an off-the-radar startup that is tackling an important issue?
JP: Rayton Solar is trying to manufacture solar panels that are 60% cheaper and 25% more efficient than the market standard using particle accelerator technology for silicon cutting. They’ve raised money through crowdfunding, which you do not see very much of in this space. And their spokesman is Bill Nye the Science Guy. As the industry evolves, slight efficiency improvements or cost savings can disappear so quickly with a policy shift or tariff. Perhaps that backdrop will make their cheaper solution all the more interesting. But Rayton’s technology solution is high cost and complex. Other companies have tried this in the past and failed.
RM: I recently met an entrepreneur with a Material Science PhD who wanted to build a new solar module company with a new chemistry. He was asking for feedback. I told him, “I am sure you have already been told 100 times, but that is crazy. Getting a bank to sign off on financing this sans balance sheet will be incredibly challenging.” He said he knew and had been told that. With that said, we discussed some things he could try. It’s just a very difficult problem. Hats off to people who are trying to make those improvements happen.
JP: Agreed. I have a ton of respect for innovators. We will have to see how they do.
RM: Taking a wide-angle lens, any thoughts on how the cleantech landscape is going to evolve in the coming years?
JP: I think partnerships with utilities are going to be key, especially as U.S. utilities begin to collaborate more with startups. When I first started covering the industry, there seemed to be animosity and an oppositional dynamic of startups and clean tech innovators versus the utilities. There has since been an evolution on both sides. The utilities have realized that they need to bring some knowledge in-house, or at the very least partner with innovative startups. The startups have realized that a lot of big money comes from the utility sector. The trend of startups and utilities collaborating has already surfaced internationally, with European utilities taking a much more active role in the cleantech startup space. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the U.S.
People are also asking who is going to be the next big player to own the smart home. NRG seemed to be going down that road with the startups they bought, but that did not work out. There is an opportunity for someone to disrupt that space.
Looking to 2018
RM: What’s your biggest non-consensus bet for 2018?
JP: I have seen a lot of headlines that the electric vehicle revolution is here, but until everyone saying that owns an EV, we are not there. When I host panels at cleantech conferences I’ll ask the audience – people who should by all means be early adopters – if they own an EV, and only a handful of people will put up their hand. U.S. EV sales are going to be up about 30,000 units year over year, which is good, but it’s not hockey stick growth. So don’t start kidding yourself that we are at a place that we are not yet. Don’t get me wrong, people are looking at the Model 3 and are excited about what’s to come. We just haven’t cracked the nut on EVs quite yet.
I do not doubt that globally, we will get there. Compared to the U.S., adoption is actually happening more quickly in other countries.
Here, we are seeing that it’s difficult to get to that next layer of consumers and have them build EVs into their lives. This is really an opportunity for startups and service companies to make adoption easier for consumers. This is an opportunity as much as it is an issue. So my bet is that EV sales in the U.S. will continue to be underwhelming, unless we see a lot more technology, but even more-so, business model and policy breakthroughs.
Interview conducted by Richard Matsui, KWh Analytics.