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The Solar Social Network: Evangelists Required

Will solar panels generate buzz like a Tesla Roadster (s tsla) or boredom like an efficient water heater? The former is a head-turning ride; the latter is an appliance you like but likely don’t show-off. Solar service providers are hoping for a Tesla response, and are increasingly turning to social media tactics in an attempt to create engaged communities around the sunny clean power.

Sungevity recently hired a new chief marketing officer, Patrick Crane, who hailed from LinkedIn where he was VP of marketing. In an interview last week, Crane told us he plans to focus on finding evangelists who will promote Sungevity’s services via word-of-mouth, and will also build up one of its YouTube channels (s goog), which it has dubbed the Solar Social Network.

One Block Off the Grid, 1BOG, is another solar startup that has been leaning heavily on social media. The company, which has been building a business by bringing together neighbors to leverage bargaining collectively with installers, has a YouTube channel with solar user testimonials, a Facebook page, and over 300,000 followers on Twitter.

Crane notes that while solar panels aren’t as sexy as, say, Apple (s AAPL) gadgets, because the panels are located outside of the home, that visibility is a conversation starter and therefore valuable for building an online — and offline — community in which people are willing to spend time swapping tales and tips. The super-passionate solar owners will play a key role in evangelizing their solar systems: “The exciting challenge for me is to isolate who are our customers who have that passion, who see it as their role in a social group to spread the word to their colleagues or schools or a nonprofit,” said Crane.

Sungevity wants to move beyond the obvious social media, like Facebook, and Twitter, and to offline communities. “I intend to have Sungevity customers and interested people to get together and have fun and create stronger connections between customers and between the product and brand,” Crane said. Solar installer SunWize Technologies also encourages its customers to hold the solar version of a Tupperware party.

Incentives then go hand in hand with passionate evangelists. Sungevity has been offering a $1,000 referral fee for months now to create what it calls the Sunshine Network to give these promoters a sense of camaraderie. Last month, the company said it was launching to offer schools and nonprofits opportunities raise money by signing up customers for the company.

Effective use of communication tools will be crucial for an industry that relies on public subsidies and subject to political whims, and recruiting evangelists to spread the gospel could be an important piece of that. As David Crane, CEO of power company NRG Energy (who will also be speaking at Green:Net 2011 on April 21 in San Francisco) said at an event last week: “The green technology industry needs to improve its interface with the American consumer.”

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Photo of Patrick Crane, courtesy of Sungevity