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The Difference Between Being a Lone Nut and Being a Leader (or How Solar Became Viral)


Somebody has finally put a number on something we have all had a gut sense about: people are far more likely to follow a trend (in this case, installing solar panels) when it is clearly a trend. But the natural follow-up question is: “when does a trend officially become a trend?”

There is an amusing and inspiring TED talk (core part of it above) that uses a popular YouTube video to illustrate a fairly universal human tendency — to dismiss a true trendsetter as “loonie” until a certain threshold, whereupon, suddenly and magically, what they’re doing becomes a trend. Perhaps you’ve seen the video above before — it’s a lone guy dancing up a storm, painfully alone in a sea of a mostly sedentary audience. You can feel the scorn of those who presume him to be either crazy or drunk — who does that anyways? But this dancin’ fool doesn’t care, he’s oblivious to conformity, and ends up triggering a human landslide. There is a difference between “crazy” and “I don’t care if people think I’m crazy” though, and there is an important lesson to be learned about leadership — and it isn’t obvious, you have to watch the TED talk to get it.

When I put my architecture career on hold to enter into the red hot Ontario microFIT solar market, it was because I knew a sure thing when I saw it. Highest feed-in tariff in the world, highest in world history. Why on Earth would someone say no to earning 14% ROI, protecting your roof, reducing your carbon footprint, ensuring energy independence, boosting your local economy, and displaying what some might argue to be the strongest symbol of environmentalism after the bicycle? You don’t need to be a strong salesperson, this sells itself!

Turns out it wasn’t so easy. Everybody embraced the idea, but it seems many were afraid of looking like a freak. In the early months, aesthetics seemed to be the number one concern, and I frequently questioned my sanity for having left my original career path.

Well, what a difference 18 months makes. I am seeing the solar version of the dancing guy, and I have a few observational notes of my own. Gone is the worry about how panels will look — it is already something people want to show off. Referrals make up about a third of all sales, and there is a spike of interest right after a new installation. The main question now is not ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ and ‘how big.’

So, back to this study I mentioned at the beginning — what effect does it have on people when solar panels are installed near you? If you start with a neighborhood with 25 solar installations, where it was 100 days between the 24th and 25th installation, this peer pressure effect will reduce the time between installations to just 10 days by the 250th [photovoltaic] project.

solar contagious

To summarize, being near solar panel installations seems to step it up within our personal priorities. Otherwise known as “keeping up with the Jones’s.” Everyone has their own reasons, but the link is clear. No real surprise, but it’s great to have a peer-reviewed study to back it up.

Does this make people dumb as sheep? As my mother used to ask me, “if everyone jumped into a lake, would you do the same?” Trends are not always sensible. In 1637 Holland, people had whipped each other into a frenzy to buy tulips; everybody had them and everybody wanted more, literally trading away their houses until the tulip market crashed. And what about powdered wigs? Don’t laugh, everyone was doing it at one time. I don’t pretend to have the answers to what drives certain modes of conformity, but it is important to make a distinction — the people who got up to dance didn’t do so because they wanted to emulate the dancing guy,… they did so because they wanted to dance.

Anyone comparing solar panels to fashion or fads needs to research what peak oil and climate change is. There is not enough room in this article for science lessons, but suffice it to say that environmental awareness is at an all-time high for one simple reason — we are in the age of information and awareness. You can probably thank the internet for a lot of that. And once you learn something, you do not “unlearn” it. We have a truckload of problems bearing down upon us, and solar just happens to be a “shovel-ready” solution which some jurisdictions have made it profitable to participate in. It seems once people discover these issues, they prefer to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. This is why anyone new to the program naturally becomes the best advocate for it. It isn’t surprising that within weeks, all his cousins and his accountant want to get a solar evaluation too.

Awareness is contagious. It doesn’t work the opposite way. Thank God for that!

This guest post came to us from Yoshi Hashimoto, an architect/energy auditor/solar specialist out of Windsor Ontario. Big thanks to Yoshi — I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile and haven’t been getting to it (and I think he does a much better job of it than I would have), and I hadn’t actually seen news of this new Yale study before he shared it with me. Thanks, Yoshi!

Image via Home Solar Systems Info | Source: Yale

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