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The importance of social for greentech

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The summer of 2011 has (arguably) produced a bubble around social media, with valuations for social media companies soaring and a dozen massive IPOs in the works or completed, like LinkedIn’s and Pandora’s. Will any of that social magic rub off on consumer-facing clean-power and energy-efficiency technologies, like electric cars, solar panels or home energy management systems?

The companies selling these green goods hope so. In recent weeks solar panel makers and installers like SunPower have touted Facebook games as a way to attract solar customers. And automakers are using social media to do research and development into how to launch electric cars and generate interest in upcoming EVs.

There’s also a trend of entrepreneurs building businesses off the intersection of green and social media. For example, PlugShare has created a mobile app — an electric-car-sharing locator and community — that will soon launch a system like Yelp where users can review electric charging points, and it recently launched a wiki-type map to find the nearest chargers.

Social sustainability

The idea for these companies is that sharing information about green purchases and actions will help generate sales (directly or indirectly) of solar panels, electric cars or greener goods. Seeing that someone in your network just bought a solar rooftop system or a Nissan LEAF could incentivize you to react a number of ways, such as feeling guilty about your not-so-eco-friendly buying habits, striving to keep up with the Joneses or wanting to learn where to buy these things.

Some companies are using the unique always-on features of connected cars and networked energy systems to stream data as a way to share clean-power and energy-efficiency choices. Startup SunReports launched a Facebook app in June that connects to a rooftop solar system and shares the amount of solar power produced in real time by that roof. Home energy management tools like WattVision can do this, too, and they can report real-time energy savings in whatever format the user wants, be it web graphs or an iPhone widget.

However, social-product recommendations are sometimes easier to produce when the goods are lower cost or free, like with sharing music or dinner suggestions on Yelp. In contrast, rooftop solar systems and electric cars are much pricier, and consumers take a long time to make decisions.

The social, collaborative green web

Social media will play a couple of other roles in terms of consumer’s attitudes about climate change and more-sustainable behavior. First, the 24/7 Internet and news cycle’s displaying recent extreme weather events, combined with social media, could potentially offer a spark to create a green web movement around fighting climate change. Al Gore thinks so and has launched the Climate Reality Project, the first event that will live stream content that shows how extreme weather has affected people’s lives.

Then there’s the collaborative-consumption movement, in which consumers are using the social web to move away from owning things and toward using goods as a service. Companies like Airbnb, RelayRides, Zilok and others have created web communities around services that can reduce fuel consumption and lead to less goods produced.

Why social is important

Social tools will be incredibly important for the long-term success of consumer-facing systems like rooftop solar panels and electric cars. Because these goods are more expensive than their fossil fuel equivalents, the buying decisions will at least partly be based on emotions and a desire to do something environmental. That is something that can be influenced by peers and social media.

While solar rods and electric cars might not make the biggest dent in humanity’s carbon footprint, they could be crucial driving factors for making sure the public accepts the next generation of clean technologies. American consumers don’t want things forced on them by the government (subsidies for clean power, ethanol mandates), but they are slowly starting to become aware of energy issues via the rising cost of gas and newly launched electric cars, said David Crane, the CEO of power company NRG Energy.

Social web movements built around getting people to fight climate change, as well as join the growing collaborative-consumption movement, will be important, too. There will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, and the world will need to use the networks provided by the Internet to manage limited resources, cut down on carbon emissions and also share information about making behavior more sustainable.

Question of the week

Has social media convinced you to act or buy greener?