Chasm Crossing Confusion – Why Solar Adoption is Unique

Chasm Crossing Confusion – Why Solar Adoption is Unique

I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse, but I happened to be a member of the Crossing The Chasm development team along with Geoff Moore all the way back in 1989-1991 while working at Regis McKenna Inc. So having helped create the Crossing The Chasm framework, it is sometimes painful to see the occasional misinterpretation or misapplication of the Crossing The Chasm methodology.

After recently watching several members of the solar industry misinterpret Crossing The Chasm at InterSolar North America, I thought it might be helpful to: re-visit the foundation of the Crossing the Chasm framework, provide a rough first-look estimate of solar market penetration, and then offer a few suggestions about how to recognize the unique characteristics of solar market adoption.

Crossing The Chasm (CTC) is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate disruptive or discontinuous ideas and technology spread. It is fundamentally a study of the psychological characteristics of buyers. The underlying thesis of Crossing The Chasm is that innovations are absorbed into any given user base in stages, corresponding to their psychological and social profiles.

Because adoption rates are based on psychological profiles — personality, values, opinions, attitudes, interests, and lifestyles – the exact point at which a technology penetrates a given group, or crosses the chasm, can be very difficult to measure. And it is important to recognize that Crossing the Chasm does not say that transitions from one group of buyers to the next are smooth or well defined.

Many organizations use a technology adoption curve (shown below) that indicates early adopters are on BOTH sides of the chasm. This is because exact buyer-transition points are nearly impossible to identify. So be careful when trying to pinpoint the specific date or timeframe in which a market chasm has been crossed.

Crossing the Chasm

An Initial Look At Solar Market Penetration

If you look at the breakpoints of a bell curve that is used to represent technology adoption, you will see that innovators represent 2.5% of an available market, early adopters represent 13.5% of an available market, and the early/late majority represents a whopping 68% of the available market. So it is sometimes possible to get a VERY ROUGH estimate of market penetration by using simple mathematics.


Let’s look at residential solar as an example. The U.S. Government Census says there are approximately 72 million single-family detached homes in the US, and NREL says 25% of those are “solar compatible” so the available market for residential solar in the US is around 18 million houses. An early market made up of innovators (2.5%) and early adopters (13.5%) represents 16% of the available market, so in rough numbers, once you pass 2.88 million residential solar installations (or 16% of 18 million), you can say you’ve probably crossed the chasm.

BUT WAIT! It’s not quite that simple. As Pamela Cargill has pointed out numerous times, the markets for residential solar are highly localized. For example, the same math exercise applied to Sacramento County, CA yields the following: there are approximately 310,000 detached single-family houses in the Sacramento area and if 25% of them are solar compatible, that means the available market in Sacramento County is roughly 77,500 houses. Brent Sloan at SMUD tells me there are approximately 14,000 single-family homes with solar in SMUD’s service territory, which means 18% of the available market has adopted solar. (Remember, innovators and early adopters represent only 16% of an available market) So our preliminary “first look” analysis indicates residential solar has crossed the chasm in the Sacramento area. However each location or area in the US must be analyzed separately.

Public Policy Blurs Solar Adoption

On top of the inherent difficulties in measuring localized, psychographic behavior, you must factor in the effect of public policy and incentives, which act to BLUR market dynamics. The psychographic sequence that is the foundation of Crossing The Chasm (innovator – early adopter – early majority – late majority) can be skewed by government or utility programs designed to encourage or accelerate the adoption of solar. A solar-friendly utility that satisfies a compelling reason to buy by offering a complete product — familiar buying experience, a standardized system, tax credits, credible references, attractive financing, streamlined permitting/interconnection, etc., etc. — will reduce risk in the eyes of a mainstream customer so that adoption occurs before it normally would in a purely commercial setting or market.

My colleagues — Steven Strong, Don Osborn, Don Aitken — and I first discovered this skewing of solar adoption when conducting a review of SMUD’s PV Pioneer Program in 1999. People who fit the psychographic description of the early and late majority were among the first to sign up for residential solar because the combined effect of SMUD’s multi-faceted solar program lowered risk so dramatically, it caused pragmatic buyers to adopt solar early, rather than late. (Keep in mind that SMUD’s PV Pioneer program was ten times more comprehensive than anything a utility offers today. So the reduction in perceived risk by the customer was truly unparalleled)

The bottom line is solar adoption is influenced by a unique set of artificial variables, making buyer-transition points even harder to recognize. And marketing solar requires an in-depth understanding of the Crossing the Chasm model, plus the willingness to adapt to skewed adoption patterns.

For those who supply or install residential solar products, you will need to analyze the local market(s) you serve, and gauge the impact of local policy initiatives, then adapt your product offering and marketing messages to match the local environment in a way that satisfies the needs and motivations of targeted buyers.

And of course a similar analysis can be done for utility-scale solar, which should start with some understanding of the “available market.”

If you have questions about Crossing The Chasm as it relates to solar, I would be happy to answer them.

Thomas Edison was a Technology Marketing Genius

Most of us think of Thomas Edison as an inventor.  But if you look closely, you’ll see Thomas Edison had an expert understanding of technology adoption and marketing strategy.

Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879. And in 1882 Edison dramatically accelerated the adoption of electric power and light to the early majority using specific techniques designed to humanize his new invention.

Edison’s strategy for accelerating the adoption of electric light was based on minimizing disruption to people’s lives.  Since gas lamps were the dominant method of indoor lighting, Edison designed his electric lights to look and operate almost identically.  His initial electric lights provided 13 watts of light, almost the same as the 12-watt gas lamps he wanted to replace.  The new electric lamps looked almost exactly like those same gas lamps.

Recognizing that many commercial and residential landowners in New York had invested considerable capital in gas infrastructure to light their buildings, Edison chose to run his first electrical wires through existing gas lines, fitting directly into the system people already understood for the delivery of light.

Edison’s technology was new, but the form and function were decades old. In fact, Edison’s strategy of adapting his technology to systems people were familiar with, and minimizing disruption of the customer’s habits, led to accelerated acceptance and adoption.

Edison’s other ingenious marketing strategy was in selecting the location of his first customers — financial institutions in lower Manhattan.  Seeing the windows of the financial district aglow by night demonstrated electric lighting technology to the metro population living across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

Because the financial community was seen as a credible source of innovative new products, Edison helped meet the reference requirements of the early majority, who then shared the idea with their local communities. This endorsement of electric power and light, as demonstrated by a credible (and influential) reference in a visible location, had tremendous influence on the rest of the country.

Technology organizations of all types can learn from Edison’s techniques. The more a supplier works to reduce disruption, lower perceived risk, and provide credible references, the faster adoption will occur.

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