Inside Energy Reads: How ‘Rooftop Solar’ Became ‘Private Solar’


Rebecca Jacobson

An array of solar panels provide emergency power to critical buildings at Fort Carson Army Base in the event of a blackout on the larger electric grid. on May 26, 2015.

It is nearly impossible to talk about the nation’s electric grid and the utilities that supply our electricity without collapsing into jargon.  Take this simple explanatory sentence from Greenwire:

“The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s energy infrastructure update says nearly 4,300 megawatts of new gas-fired generation came online from January through May of this year, compared with 1,796 MW installed during the same period last year.”

Sure, it is understandable, but you do need to understand how the regulator – FERC – works; how much electricity one megawatt generates; and what the difference is between gas-fired generation and coal-fired generation.

Now, the industry itself is taking action to de-wonkify its own language.  According to Rod Kuckro of E&E Publishing’s Energywire, the Edison Electric Institute launched the “Lexicon Project” in 2014 to better pair the language that insiders use with language the general public can understand. The effort is driven by the nation’s investor-owned electric utilities in an effort to rebrand themselves and position themselves as a “trusted advisor” to their customers, as Rob Gould, chief communications officer for NextEra Energy Inc., put it to Kuckro.  Then, he opined, “it will be easier to sell value-added service to customers that will make them more efficient and save them money.”Slide1

Some changes that the Lexicon Project suggests are major:  a utility becomes an “energy company,” a ratepayer is now a “customer,” and grid transformation becomes “building a smarter energy infrastructure.” (“Smart” was a word the industry embraced with vigor in the lexicon revision). Other changes point to industry priorities:  utility-scale solar becomes “universal solar,” while rooftop solar is dubbed “private solar.”

The latter name changes reflect utilities’ pushback on the rampant growth of “private solar” and the threat it poses to utilities’ bottom line.  Dale Heydlauff, American Electric Power Co. Inc.’s VP for corporate communications, explained that the term changes reflect ” the contrast between privately owned rooftop solar and its exclusive nature predominantly owned by rich business owners or rich homeowners, and universal solar, which says we’re providing solar to everyone.”

The word-bending effort came about through extensive research, surveying national and local media to find commonly used terms, and then interviews with company personnel and a nationwide survey of 1,000 consumers. The next steps are educating personnel in the industry on how to talk about what they do.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Tim Fitzpatrick applauded the project: “It’s not very often you get an opportunity to change the language of an entire industry that has been shaped over decades. It’s a tall order,” he said.