Public relations really is an art, and I have to hand it to Xcel Energy for creating a very nice looking commercial that — on the surface — seems to be a big luv hug to solar power! Yay!  And it is — for utility scale solar. At the same time, the video subtly poo-poos little home solar, implying that it’s an “unfair and unequal” way to go solar.

If you’re a solar installer, I think your residential solar customers and prospects in Xcel’s territories may be interested in what this commercial is subtly saying about residential solar, so as a solar PR lesson, let’s break down the art of creating a commercial that implies that residential solar is the wrong way to go solar.

First, here’s the video. Below that, the deconstruction.



Always Keep the Goal In Mind

When PR people create any commercial, whether it’s for or against home solar, they always have to keep the goal in mind. What do we want to accomplish?

In this case, I suspect that Xcel is trying to convince its various state public utility commissions that utility scale solar is more “fair and equal” than expanding or supporting more residential solar. To make their case, they need public support on a very important but wonky energy issue about home solar customers not paying their fair share for maintaining the grid.

Rather than directly go into this complicated issue, this commercial’s goal seems to be to convince the public that only big utility solar is the “right” “fair” and “equal” way to develop solar power. Though it doesn’t directly say it, the message also subtly implies that home solar is not right, fair, or equal.

Now let’s break down how Xcel’s PR machine presents this message.

The Voice and the MusicDeconstruction Xcel

The voice over artist is very important in this type of commercial. It represents the company, so you have to trust that voice. Here, I’m guessing they wanted to speak to the people at home who pay the utility bills–often women.

As a result, Xcel chose a young, down-to-earth, spunky, woman’s voice, perhaps representing a soccer mom. Listen to this voice. Isn’t that the person you imagine on Xcel’s board of directors speaking to the public? No? Really? Shocking. Well, that’s PR.

The background music choice can also subtly influence the viewer. Here, they chose an upbeat tune that signifies progress and has hints of technology and optimism. There’s nothing dangerous or ominous about it. They don’t want to frighten you into seeing things in their big solar way. Rather, the music choice is meant to inspire the viewer to feel upbeat and receptive to Xcel being a positive leader for (large scale) solar.

Repetition with Graphics

Marketers know that repeating a message is critical to getting an audience to remember—and hopefully act on—the message. In fact, there’s a theory that one needs to repeat a message at least 9 times before someone truly takes note of your ad.

I have no idea how many times Excel blasted this video on air and cable, but you’ll notice that in addition to this video’s pretty cartoon world of wind mills and large-scale solar images, textual graphics reinforce key messaging. Among the key words viewers see as well as hear:

  • “enough power to support nearly 60,000 homes”
  • “Solar Electric Power Association ranks Xcel Energy among the top 10 in America for solar”
  • “We didn’t get here by thinking SMALL.” (Large lettering is Xcel’s)
  •  “develop and support large scale solar projects (Bold is Xcel’s)
  • “that deliver solar energy more economically” (Bold is Xcel’s)
  • “equally and fairly”
  • “doing solar right.”

These key phrases reinforce the ad’s point that large scale solar is economical and the “right way” to do solar. (Just as a side note, I do support utility scale solar, but I would never call it “right,” as if distributed generation and all other solar were “wrong.” So black and white, Xcel, but again, that’s PR!)

Breaking Down the Script

Now I’m going to deconstruct the commercial’s script. The first part in bold will be the actual text. Below that, italics will be my personal interpretation, and includes the subtext of Xcel’s goal for finding public support for its vision of a big utility solar world being “right.”

“At Xcel Energy, we believe in solar energy in a big way—in the right way. Solar energy is clean, it’s renewable, and it’s a big part of Xcel Energy’s clean energy future.”

At Xcel Energy, we’re not against solar. Mother Earth, forbid! We like solar, but we only like it when it’s utility scale. That’s the future we’d like to see, a future where utilities control and sell solar energy, not little solar homeowners.

“The fact is that the Excel energy solar portfolio already includes enough power to support nearly 60,000 homes.”

Yes, it’s true. Xcel Energy’s large-scale solar farms power lots of homes. We’re mentioning this and showing you lots of homes in this graphic to make you see that we power homes with big solar installations. We love solar…when it’s controlled by us! …Of course, if you look closely, we’re not showing you any solar homes. That might encourage you to get your own solar system, and we don’t want that. We just want you to see that we support solar…controlled by us. Cool, huh?

“The Solar Electric Power Association ranks Excel Energy among the top 10 utilities in America for solar capacity. We didn’t get here by thinking small.”

See? Even a solar advocacy organization ranks us as being a big solar supporter! Of course, let’s not mention that SEPA represents the interests of utilities going solar, not homeowners. While you stare at this U.S.A. map, I’m also not going to tell you that states made us set goals for going solar through legislation. Oh, and “by thinking small,” we mean that we didn’t think that residential solar installations would ever meet our state solar mandates, but man, those little solar homeowners are growing fast, hee-hee. …Doh!

“And now we’re using the same dedication to solar energy that made us the number one wind utility in the nation. Excel Energy is working to develop and support large-scale solar projects the deliver solar energy more economically.”

Did we mention we’re green? Yep! We control our state’s wind energy production too, and now we want to do the same thing with solar production. Yes, we know that solar prices are coming down, but we think only utilities should get free electricity from the sun, not individual homeowners. As far as we’re concerned, that would not be economical…for Xcel, we mean.

“Most importantly, because it’s all part of a strong reliable interconnected energy grid, Xcel Energy lets everyone enjoy the benefits of solar equally and fairly. That means solar energy for big cities and small towns. Solar energy for our businesses and our homes.”

Most importantly, we don’t admit that residential or commercial solar has any significant benefit to the overall grid or to reducing our own costs. In fact, we think home solar owners aren’t paying their fair share of grid costs, and we have our very own internal studies to prove it. So, when we say “equally and fairly,” we’re subtly trying to tell non-solar ratepayers that we’re protecting them from greedy solar owners who aren’t paying their share to maintain the grid. Of course, we won’t tell non-solar ratepayers about other studies showing how home solar net metering adds value to the grid. You say potato, we say potahto, let’s just trust utility studies!

“It’s more than just doing solar. It’s doing solar right.”

Oh, gees, we’re doing lots of big solar, okay? Don’t you just want us to be green? We’re green now, okay? You betcha! No more of this home solar energy independence thingy. That’s doing solar wrong. Only large scale solar is right.

Massive Airings of Ad Across Many States

The final tactic in Xcel’s campaign is spending lots of ad dollars to get this video seen by as many ratepayers as possible. According to ASES, this commercial has been aired in Xcel’s service areas in Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. If only residential solar advocates had enough funds for that kind of PR reach.

What we can do is grass roots public awareness: We can write to our local public utility commissioners in the above states, and we can share this explainer blog post with our friends, families, customers, and colleagues on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks. And of course, we can support SEIA, TASC, Vote Solar, ASES, and other advocacy organizations who believe all solar is right, not just doing solar “big.”

More than ever, deconstructing anti-distributed generation solar campaigns is another way… to UnThink Solar.

Note: An Xcel representative just privately emailed me to clarify that all of their utility-scale solar is developed through solar PPA contracts independently owned by solar developers, not owned by Xcel.