The solar industry is taking a shine to sponsorship.

Fueled by growing acceptance of nontraditional energy, solar companies are increasingly using sponsorship to build visibility, educate consumers and gain business from commercial and residential accounts.

Recent deals range from five-and-six-figure ties with music festivals to multi-million dollar partnerships with pro sports teams.

NRG Energy, Inc. is one of the category’s most active sponsors. The company this year signed two partnerships in pro sports and music: the NBA Miami Heat and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (see sidebar).

NRG also sponsors a handful of NFL teams including the Dallas Cowboys; Houston Texans; Philadelphia Eagles; San Francisco 49ers; Washington Redskins; the New York Giants and the New York Jets.

And other companies are joining NRG in signing new deals.

DC Solar Solutions this year will sponsor a Chip Ganassi Racing car at 15 NASCAR Xfinity Series races, while SPI Solar in March announced a new partnership with the NBA Sacramento Kings.

In soccer, PetersenDean in 2014 announced a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal to become the official solar and roofing partner of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes and a founding partner of Avaya Stadium.

The deals are fueled in part by the growing acceptance of solar as an energy source. The number of solar installations in the U.S. grew 41 percent from Q3 2013 to Q3 2014, the second-largest quarter ever for solar installations, according to the Solar Energy Industries Assn.

Solar energy companies use sponsorship to accomplish the following:

  • Build awareness
  • Drive demand
  • Gain business from sponsored properties
  • Showcase expertise in action
  • Generate sales leads

Yingli Green Energy is one of the industry’s largest sponsors at the global level. The company sponsored the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and is negotiating a deal with the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Yingli also sponsors Germany’s FC Bayern Munich.

Yingli uses sponsorship to promote solar on the global stage.

“We partnered with FIFA because we wanted to raise awareness of solar energy and promote sustainability to millions of people around the world that might not otherwise be exposed to solar energy,” said Judy Tzeng Lee, Yingli vice president of global marketing.

Yingli activates sponsorship to demonstrate solar’s affordability and accessibility. The company leveraged the 2014 FIFA World Cup with in-stadium charging stations, solar-powered information towers, ticket giveaways and other activities under the “All Under One Sun” marketing campaign.  

“Our sponsorships have yielded significant return in terms of brand awareness and name recognition that have provided invaluable, especially when entering emerging markets.”

The Future Is Now: Green Sports Venues
Solar companies are playing an increasing important role in helping pro sports teams create sustainable energy solutions.

The San Francisco 49ers identified solar as one of several go-to categories prior to the construction of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The goal: create a gold LEED certified stadium that will serve as a model for sustainability.

“We wanted to reshape how stadiums are built moving forward,” said Ethan Casson, the San Francisco 49ers’ chief revenue officer. 

To accomplish that task, the team worked with NRG to install 1,162 solar panels throughout Levi’s Stadium. The installation includes three solar canopy bridges (NRG Energy Bridges) and a green roof terrace (NRG Solar Terrace).

The panels generate enough power to offset the venue’s energy needs on game days, said Casson.  

SunPower—another team sponsor—provided panels for the installations.   

Most pro sports teams sign two contracts with solar companies: one for business solutions (power purchase agreements), and a separate contract for marketing rights.

Similar to how IBM and other technology companies use sponsorship, solar companies leverage partnerships to demonstrate how their expertise help properties reduce energy consumption—and how they can help prospects do the same.

Navigating Exclusivity In The Solar Category
One major challenge in working with solar: category exclusivity.

In the not-too-distant past solar was largely comprised of three sectors: manufacturers (Jinko Solar, Hanwha, Yingli, etc.), installers (Sungevity, SolarCity, etc.) and utilities.

Many of those companies are rolling out products and services that place them in direct competition with other sectors of the industry. Case in point: NRG has expanded into residential solar installations, a move that places the company in competition with SunPower, which plays in the same space.

“Some companies make and install solar panels, which is where it gets tricky,” said Jason Pearl, managing vice president of business development with the MLB San Francisco Giants.

The Giants have worked with Sharp Electronics, Hanwha and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. since installing solar in AT&T Park in 2007.Hanwha, which replaced Sharp in 2010, serves as the team’s exclusive and official solar partner, while PG&E serves as the Giants’ lead sustainability partner.

In some cases utilities own the solar category. The MLB Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011 teamed with Arizona Public Service to create the APS Solar Pavilion at Chase Field.

“As energy as evolved, their exclusivity has evolved,” said Cullen Maxey, the Diamondbacks’ executive vice president of business operations.

The APS Solar Pavilion generates enough energy to power the lights at 11 home games each season and helps enhance the fan experience by providing shade while consumers wait to enter Chase Field.