While still a relatively well kept secret among the general public, large scale solar water heating is popping up in more and more places. While this technology is relatively mature, the practical deployment is still in its infancy.
While we’ve seen lots of growth in recent years, what is holding back solar water heating? Three things actually: Awareness, Cheap natural gas, and Inertia.
We’re overcoming the awareness challenge slowly but surely. Every week there is another article in the trade press about a prison, dormitory, military barracks, restaurant or health care facility adopting this valuable technology. These systems are piquing the interest of facilities managers, engineers, and architects on the demand side and mechanical contractors and manufacturers on the supply side; helping to raise awareness among the traditional commercial water heating business community. This is particularly the case in markets like Washington DC, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, and California where solar water heating systems benefit from the existing solar PV incentive markets.
Cheap natural gas. I’ve written on this before, but it’s worth repeating. Today’s wholesale natural gas prices are close to a ten year low, and more than 75% below their most recent peak in July of 2008. Recent data indicates that prices are trending up again, but the current low price combined with economic uncertainty has facility managers and CFOs hesitating until they can see a faster payback on a solar water heating investment. While a 4 year payback may not seem enticing in today’s economy, the problem with waiting for the inevitable price increase of natural gas is that you forgo some of the best incentives existing today that will surely be lower or absent in the future. Remember, the solar fuel is free in the future, so increasing gas prices will only improve the economic return in the future.
Inertia is one of the most powerful social forces I know. It plays a huge role here. As engineers and architects continue to gain experience and confidence in specifying SWH systems, volume will continue to drive down costs in much the same way that we have seen with solar PV. The federal government has required the use of SWH on all of their new construction, if feasible. The number of contractors who are capable of installing and servicing these systems continues to increase, giving prospective system owners’ confidence that the systems will not be supported in the future.
Below are a few links highlighting some commercial systems recently commissioned in the U.S. Read on and learn how commonplace this simple technology is becoming.