Marketing solar energy products: Players face unique challenges

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Ensuring affordable, adequate and uninterrupted power supply to domestic and other consumers remains one of the major challenges before the country. There is also an increasing awareness about the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy. The time is now ripe to opt for cleaner and greener fuel. With over 300 clear sunny days available annually in India, there is a huge potential to tap, store and retrieve solar power. However, the actual exploitation of solar power to meet the energy requirements of the country is insignificant and this is due to high unit costs. Unfortunately, solar powered systems and devices have remained underutilised. Companies that are in the solar energy business, therefore, face a unique challenge—they first have to develop an awareness among users about the feasibility of solar energy based products, and then create a market for solar projects and devices.

By Richa Chakravarty

Monday, February 21, 2013: Government’s initiatives in propagating, popularising and promoting the deployment of solar technology, solar power has yet to take a strong hold in the country. But the good news is that the solar photovoltaic (PV) component industry is growing impressively. As per the objectives of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM), the government plans to increase the current level of manufacturing to 20 GW by 2020. “The demand relatively small till 2010 was driven by off grid applications. From 2011 onwards it will change dramatically, as it will come from ground mounted large farms driven by JNNSM.” says Vivek Chaturvedi, senior vice president, Moser Baer Solar Ltd, a leading manufacturer of solar cells and modules.

An innovative marketing strategy—what’s different?

The solar industry is still finding it hard to convince the market to migrate from conventional to solar energy. Thus, the marketing strategies adopted by the players are very different. Factors that help in promoting the solar business are documentation, quality, process, design and innovation, production capability and, finally, cost effectiveness.

Importance of certification

Even before the marketing of solar products and components, whether they are cells, modules or off grid products, what counts most is the certification and accreditation for these products by globally acceptable certification bodies. This is done through standardisation, testing and quality certification (STQC) by TUV Rhineland (TUV), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). These certifications play a vital role in building the credibility of the products. According to Vivek Chaturvedi, “Marketing solar cells and modules is very different from that of any other consumer product. It is one of the few products in the world which carries a 25 year warranty. Therefore, the element of trust becomes very important. Moser Baer’s cells and panels are TUV 5-star rated, “These quality products help in building trust,” he adds.

Since the Indian solar market is at a nascent stage, to mitigate the risks, Moser Baer has built its strategies around off grid applications. Its presence in 91 countries through blank optical media (BOM) has strengthened the company’s market share in these countries. “We are focused on developing the right kind of products for the Indian markets. We already have state of the art products for off grid applications. We service right from a 3-5w Solar Lantern, to 1-3kw home lighting kits, to a 6-10kw Telecom tower, to up to 250kw of commercial rooftop. Now we are focusing on products for grid connected multi -megawatt power plants. We have developed world’s largest 400w thin film panel. This product is best suited for Indian conditions where the surface temperature can go up to 65 degrees in the months of June in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The value is driven not only by virtue of being the world’s largest panel, but also by the lower balance of system cost driven by lesser number of panels required to build the same plant!” opines Vivek Chaturvedi.

Spreading awareness

The promotion of solar power use should be a primary focus of not only government programmes but also of industry initiatives. The government is, without doubt, making all the efforts to increase the visibility of solar installations and broaden the appeal of its solar incentive programmes. By using communications and promotional strategies to favourably present solar power in the market place and ensuring that the right messages are presented to the public, it will help build a stronger market for solar technologies.

Companies, too, are leaving no stone unturned to make consumers aware about the benefits of this technology. Solkar Solar Industry Ltd has been approaching petrol bunks and cable television operators to strengthen the marketing network. “Petrol bunks could earmark space for solar products, and cable TV operators can carry the message of solar products to every home through their network,” says a spokesperson for the company. To popularise solar products, the company has also hosted a website for non resident Indians, where NRIs can place orders to gift solar products to their relatives or friends in India. “All these efforts may lead to a business model for deploying solar products worth Rs 500 million within the next one year, making them available at every location and affordable to the common man,” adds the spokesperson.

Green initiative

“The strategies adopted for marketing solar energy are more focused on its green aspects, with zero carbon emissions,” says Ashok Thangavel, DGM, operations and support, XL Telecom and Energy Ltd, a leading manufacturer of multi-crystalline solar modules at Secunderabad, with plans to soon venture into manufacturing cells. “Solar cells are mostly sold through systems and solutions integrators and module manufacturers. With quality and the process in place, manufacturers can build a market by using their extensive network of dealers and service providers,” he adds.

Special financing schemes

Solar companies have also started adopting various ‘go to market’ strategies. One good example is that of Tata BP Solar India Ltd, one of India’s leading solar cell and module manufacturers. It has tied up with a series of national and regional rural banks to provide special financing schemes to villagers, to enable them to purchase solar home lighting systems. The one time cost of solar home lighting systems was found to be high by the villagers but they can now pay for them in monthly instalments. For the banks, this opens up a new line of business. Thus, it is a win-win situation for all concerned. Says K Subramanya, CEO, Tata BP Solar India Ltd, “Solar home lights have literally spread light into the lives of thousands of families in several districts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. We have installed almost 500 village level solar power plants in the interiors of Chhattisgarh under the initiative of the Chhattisgarh State Renewable Energy Development Agency (CREDA). These plants have transformed the lives of the villagers.”

Expos: An important marketing tool

For this emerging industry, trade shows and exhibitions are another powerful avenue for marketing. Participating in an expo means a large scale, targeted and very efficient advertising campaign. Recently, India witnessed 600 exhibitors from 71 countries in the Delhi International Renewable Energy Conference 2010 (DIREC), organised by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). Policy makers and industry players are keen to participate in such programmes in order to promote the industry.

With a manufacturing potential of 192 MW per annum and further plans for expansion, XL Telecom and Energy Ltd participated in DIREC 2010. “Participation in solar meets, conferences and exhibitions helps the business to a certain extent. This is one of the various marketing strategies that companies are adopting these days and, yes, they help to a great extent,” says Ashok Thangavel.

Government support

The government has been very supportive in promoting solar energy. Projects like JNNSM and the Forum for the Advancement of Solar Thermal (FAST) are some of the various ways of promoting this sector. This national mission is expected to push up the demand for solar cells alone to 1300 MW. Moreover, the government has also mandated that only cells manufactured in India will be used for the mission; hence, this is an indirect encouragement to boost the growth of this industry.

Besides, every state has a state level new and renewable energy office. These agencies have an exhaustive list of companies who are empanelled or approved to supply solar products. “Buyers should preferably first check if some government approved agency is operating in their area. The MNRE assisted state nodal departments and agencies are working in all the states. There are various NGOs and different saur urja shops some of these areas,” adds Sunil Bhatnagar, director, marketing, Artheon Electronics. The government is also encouraging private players to participate in this sector by way of announcing clear guidelines. “Government of India has been very smart while launching JNNSM in a phased manner. It not only promotes serious players, but also makes sure that if any non-serious players get in, the cost is not much, with only 150mw at stake in the first phase, out of a total 22Gw till 2020. I feel India has the potential to become the solar capital of the world, in next 10 years or so. We are blessed with amongst the best quality and quantity of sun in our country, industry and government need to work closely to develop a robust ecosystem to help us get there,” adds Vivek Chaturvedi.

However, some players are spreading the word and creating a market through their own network of dealers and distributors. “We market through our dealers and distributors directly to customers and government organisations. Our in house sales team looks after institutional sales. We supply to almost all solar solutions integrators across India. As part of our marketing strategy, we aggressively focus on trade shows, exhibitions, on ground promotions in urban as well as rural areas, and are quite hopeful of a positive response from the market,” says Kunwer Sachdev, managing director, Su-Kam Power Systems Ltd.

Electronics Bazaar, South Asia’s No.1 Electronics B2B magazine

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