Emerging PV markets are using online forums and social media sites to tap into the vast reserves of experience that the sector harbours worldwide.
Looking for the best cleaning system for a megawatt-scale PV plant? Need an analysis of thin film in India? Fancy taking a course on off-grid power components, systems and applications? For all this and much more, you do not even need to leave your desk. Just look online.
The above are all examples of discussions culled from the PV Insider LinkedIn group, just one of a growing number of online forums that solar professionals are turning to in ever greater numbers for informal knowledge transfer and even deal-making.
The PV Insider Linkedingroup, launched in March 2011, has almost 500 members, many of them tuned into the group's specific PV channels of PV, thin film and CPV. While longer running solar groups can boast in excess of 40,000 members, manufacturers, technology developers and financiers in this segment often want a more intimate setting to discuss trade issues and to exchange ideas.
But looking at the larger social media picture LinkedIn, the professional networking site, alone has nearly 50 different forums covering PV, including topics as diverse as solar cell manufacturing and renewable energy careers.
These groups are notable not just for their popularity and diversity, but also for the level of activity of their members. A straw poll of 10 LinkedIn PV groups, for example, reveals an average of eight discussions per group over the last week. Why the popularity?
“I don’t have a good answer,” says IHS Emerging Energy Research solar power advisory analyst Josefin Berg. “But it might be to quicker get access for knowledge. It’s also used for trading.”
Comments from forum members confirm this. Madhavan Nampoothiri, principal consultant at Energy Alternatives India, says: “My view is that social media, especially LinkedIn, has become an integral part of marketing today.
“Another development is that in order to get business it is now very important to share free information and perspectives. These are global trends.”
It is also telling that much of the activity seen on LinkedIn groups currently originates from places where expert PV knowledge is currently at a premium, rather than from established markets, such as those in the European Union (EU).
In the PV Insider LinkedIn group, for example, 12% of members are from the New Delhi area, and the publication also has specific subgroups dedicated to India and South Africa.
“Solar being a new sector in India, there is a lack of enough data to take informed decisions and the practitioners are now looking for insights wherever they can find it,” Nampoothiri points out.
“LinkedIn is providing that forum not only to get insights, but also to connect with experienced professionals abroad. In short, social media is definitely accelerating the pace of knowledge acquisition. Personally, I have been able to gain tremendous knowledge about the sector.”
This does not mean emerging PV markets have a monopoly on online information sharing, though; just that older markets were established before LinkedIn came to the fore, and so use different platforms.
Berg says: “In Germany there are a lot of forums focused on PV, but all in German.”
Some of these forums dwarf comparable LinkedIn groups. Photovoltaikforum.com, for example, boasts more than 61,000 members. The Spanish-language Solarfotovoltaicas Foro Energía Solar, meanwhile, has almost 29,000.
The question for many PV practitioners, however, is not just how to use these online platforms for knowledge transfer, but also how to employ them to close deals. Indian companies seem happy requesting or offering business on LinkedIn.
Opportunities for solar
And, says Nampoothiri: “In view of the diminishing opportunities in Europe for solar, many of the companies and professionals from the EU, especially Germany, are looking at opportunities in India.”
That said, some companies have yet to realise the full potential of looking for business online.
At the German thin-film maker Avancis, for example, head of marketing and communications Hendrik Feige says online tools are used for internal communications but: “We are doing a lot with installers and distributors and some of them are not so concerned with new media.
“Some of them are craftsmen working on roofs, who do not even have a business card.”
Nevertheless he admits Avancis may have to look more closely at social media as his company aims to do more business in India. “We’re just getting started there but India is coming up for sure because it’s a developing market,” he says.
Atheer Al-Salim, founder of the social networking consultancy SoSocial, says using online forums should be a no-brainer for any company looking to gain information and drum up new business.
“Social media channels such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook now allow us to assemble and connect with networks of people based on personally relevant criteria,” he says.
“We’re able to tap into external knowledge sources, which often lie across organizational and social boundaries, quickly, cost-effectively and with unprecedented access to information and ideas.”
That is exactly the kind of dynamism the PV industry needs right now. So if your business needs a helping hand, maybe it is time to get your fingers busy on a keyboard.