Solar and the Environment: Surprises from the Value-Belief-Norm Theory

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The connection between Americans’ concern for the environment and solar adoption is clear. In a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 55% of homeowners under age 50 in the United States said they had given serious thought to installing solar or had already installed solar panels. The second most common reason why? Environmental concerns.

For many solar contractors, this is not news. However, there are nuances to this connection. Whether pro-environment or not, consumers’ feelings about the environment are impacted by other beliefs and social factors that can influence their decision making process about adopting solar.

Being aware of these related factors and how they influence prospects can help you make your sales and marketing efforts more effective and avoid the pitfalls of assumptions about what prospects value.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a study to explore the social and psychological factors influencing homeowners considering adopting solar. This final article in our series about this study looks at some of its conclusions and how they can bolster your solar sales and marketing strategies.


This Blog Series and the NREL Study

In this blog series, we take a closer look at insights from a 2016 NREL-funded study, Explaining interest in adopting residential solar photovoltaic systems in the United States: Toward an integration of behavioral theories. The study’s researchers surveyed 904 homeowners from four U.S. states who did not adopt solar in order to understand how psychological and social factors affect consumer interest in residential solar. The factors were drawn from three behavioral theories that shed light on the decision making process of prospects, and from conversations with solar industry professionals.

Each article in our series examines one of the behavioral theories used in the study, exploring insights it offers for the process of solar customer acquisition. Where applicable we also add information from related research.

In this final article in the series, we examine what the “value-belief-norm theory”—which offers an explanation for individual environmental decision making—tells us about the decision making process for homeowners considering solar. In the previous two articles, we looked at insights from a theory that views solar as a new innovation and a theory that focused on purchasing behavior in a rational decision making process.

Value-Belief-Norm Theory

The value-belief-norm theory (VBN) argues that pro-environmental behavior is value driven. The most important of these values are social altruism, concern for other humans, and biospheric altruism, concern about other species and earth’s biosphere. Additional values shaping a person’s environmental related behavior are self-interest, openness to change, and feelings about tradition.

VBN asserts that these values have an impact on a person’s general beliefs about the human-environmental relationship and their sense of responsibility or moral obligation to take particular actions.

Source: Kimberly S. Wolske, Paul C. Stern, Thomas Dietz, “Explaining interest in adopting residential solar photovoltaic systems in the United States: Toward an integration of behavioral theories,” Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 25, 2017.

Impact of VBN Factors on Solar Adoption

The study’s researchers found that VBN variables accounted for 11% of the variation in interest in solar adoption after they accounted for other household characteristics (demographics, financial status, etc.).

The study’s conclusion was that these values have a variable impact on how prospects perceive solar. Both types of altruism made prospects more liable to be open to considering solar since they identified solar as a technology that would reduce the stress on the environment. However, this impact was mediated by their views on climate change, sense of obligation to address it, and their awareness of the effect of humans’ actions on the environment. These factors made them either more or less willing to consider solar.

Self-interest helped reduce interest in solar by lessening a prospect’s concern about the environment while their personal perception of the economic benefits of solar increased their interest. Additionally, while an openness to change helped promote curiosity about solar, traditionalism provoked skepticism.

How These Findings Can Help with Solar Customer Acquisition

Understanding how these value-belief-norm variables shape a homeowner’s decision making process can offer valuable insights to bolster your sales conversations and marketing messaging.

Address Concerns That Can Eclipse Prospects’ Pro-Environmental Feelings

The study revealed that there are VBN values that do predispose certain people to take pro-environmental action, something that can help you identify homeowners who may be more inclined to adopt solar. However, the impact of these values is shaped by behavior-specific beliefs and attitudes.

One such factor is a prospect’s personal norms, or expectations they may have about themselves and their behavior in relation to the environment. This could include be whether or not they feel guilt when they waste energy or feel obligated to take action about the future use of renewable energy. It could also be related to their feelings about the kind of social support they think they would receive for the choice they make about going solar.

Personal norms have such a significant impact on a prospect’s perception of solar’s benefits that it can even eclipse their pro-environmental values. It may be helpful to keep this in mind when shaping your marketing messaging and engaging in sales conversations. You might look to strike a balance between emphasizing the environmental benefits and discussing the other advantages of solar adoption, particularly when moving past the initial stages of the conversation with a prospect.

You may also help your sales teams avoid assumptions about a prospect’s feelings about renewable energy and have them be on the lookout for how a prospect factors in the opinions of others when it comes to making a decision about something like solar.

Avoid Assumptions About a Prospect’s Opinions About Change and the Environment

Past studies show evidence of the strong link between pro-environmental values and residential solar adoption. The 2016 Pew Research Center survey found that 87% of the surveyed consumers who installed solar or seriously considered it did so to help the environment. A 2011 survey of Dutch consumers found environmental concern to be the most important driver of a household’s intention to generate its own power.

However, the NREL study concluded that the impact of pro-environmental sentiments can be moderated by factors like doubts about climate change or traditionalism. Given this, you may consider creating marketing materials that account for the varying beliefs of your prospects.

One strategy is to create several different buyer personas, or mock profiles of your company’s ideal customers, in order to speak to their specific opinions and needs. You can use digital marketing tools like emails, blog posts, videos and webinars to offer valuable content for each specific buyer persona you want to approach. Additionally, members of your sales team may seek to find out where a prospect stands on issues like climate change or changes to the status quo early on in a sales conversation.

Capitalize on Green Business Values

On the commercial side of your business, you may consider appealing to a company’s stance on sustainability in your marketing efforts. Discuss the benefits of solar in differentiating their company and impacting customers’ perceptions, particularly for companies that know many of their customers and shareholders have pro-environmental views. Business owners and CEOs set business strategy so you may try to help them understand how going solar can demonstrate their companies’ values in relation to the environment.

SunPower points out the relationship between sustainable business practices and brand reputation. They highlight four ways a sustainable business practice like going solar can bolster a company’s reputation: 1) “Follow the lead of environmentally-conscious Fortune 500 companies, 2) Position yourself to consumers and investors as a forward-thinking company, 3) Initiate a “green marketing” strategy, 4) Highlight your ability to align sustainability in business with profitability.”

You may also choose to appeal to prospects’ VBN related values and profitability on the commercial side of your business in this way.

Accounting for the psychological and social variables that shape a prospect’s decision-making process in sales conversations and marketing materials can improve your solar contracting company’s ability to effectively engage consumers. Insights from the value-belief-norm theory can be particularly useful, given the close relationship between solar adoption and pro-environmental behavior.

Because there are a number of beliefs and social factors that impact a person’s feelings about the environment and how they view solar, it is helpful to consider VBN variables in relation to the behaviors addressed by the two other theories used in the NREL study: the diffusion of innovation and the theory of planned behavior, which we covered earlier in this series. This synthesis of three distinct theories about consumer behavior allows contractors to gain a more robust understanding of what ultimately drives homeowners to adopt solar.

About This Series: Solar Sales Tips from 3 Theories of Solar Adoption

In 2016 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) conducted a study that examined the decision making process of residential solar prospects through the lens of three behavioral theories. They sought to provide solar industry professionals with insights about the social and psychological factors influencing homeowners when they considered whether or not to adopt PV solar, in order to help increase the solar adoption rate.

In this three-part series, we look at each of these theories and discuss the key variables explored in the study and in related research. The series seeks to provide contractors information that can enhance their sales and marketing efforts.

Part 1. Increase Solar Sales Success with the Diffusion of Innovations Theory

Part 2. Solar Sales Insights from the Theory of Planned Behavior

Part 3. Solar and the Environment: Surprises from the Value-Belief-Norm Theory