The greatest country on Earth, as it likes to bill itself, America is currently shut down, thanks to political intransigence and public ignorance. You’d think saving over $60 billion and creating thousands of jobs might wake it out of its gridlocked stupor.
That’s what the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) says the United States could be creating, in lieu of losing money hand over fist in further fossil foolery and political game theory. That the shutdown is being funded by dirty energy billionaires like the Koch Brothers, according to UC Berkeley economist Robert Reich, in the middle of a climate crisis, is enough of a sign that America needs solar alternatives more than ever. SEIA’s new report on solar heating and cooling (SHC) systems is a step into a future that makes way more sense.
Its plan and numbers are pretty straightforward. Americans currently use over 40 percent of their energy on heating and cooling. Give them 100 million SHC systems and watch their capacity increase from 9 gigawatts of thermal energy to 300 gigawatts thermal by 2050. Boom: $19.1 billion saved overall, $2.1 billion annually in increased federal tax revenue, and a $1.4 billion boost in manufacturing GDP. Along the way, America generates around 8 percent of its total heating and cooling, displaces over 220 million tons of carbon emissions annually and evolves our green infrastructure forward into a hopefully healthier planet.
“Solar heating and cooling is growing nationwide as awareness grows of its benefits,” SEIA spokesperson Ken Johnson explained in an interview. “Today, there are an estimated 2.3 million solar water heating and pool heating systems installed in the U.S. These systems are saving on energy costs, providing meaningful and lasting environmental benefits and spurring economic development. In the past, when a water heater broke or needed to be replaced, most people didn’t think of converting to solar because they didn’t fully understand all of the benefits offered by SHC. With the release of this report, we hope to do a better job of educating people.”
Questions still arise, even from solar adopters. Is SHC for you, even if you’re living in shade, or not facing as south as a conventional solar system? Can you connect SHC to a standard solar system?
“The water or antifreeze solution you pump through your SHC collector will still heat up if the roof is shaded or not as south-facing, but obviously to a much lesser extent than if the collector were directly facing the sun,” Johnson explained. “A car in the shade on a hot day will still heat up inside, but not as much as a car left in the sun. And a typical SHC system doesn’t connect at all to a standard solar PV system, unless you run the small pump with solar PV.” SHC deals with plumbing issues, PV with electricity issues.
“However,” he added, “with SHC there is so much that can be done with a little innovation. There are PVT (PV-thermal) models on the market that take the heat given off the back of a PV system and use this heat to heat water.”
What about financing? We’re in a shutdown, after all. “For commercial projects, the financing is growing as more and more companies realize they can do third-party ownership of systems,” Johnson said.
Beyond the debate lies the inevitable innovation and adoption of private and public SHC infrastructure. Storage is arguably the Holy Grail of renewable energy and technology, and solar is the cleanest power option we have as a species. Their systemic integration is a no-brainer, and already underway.
“The Department of Energy’s Buildings Program is looking to fund research and development for Building Integrated Solar Technologies, including advanced storage for SHC and other space heating technologies,” Johnson said.
But not right now, thanks to the shutdown. If only Congress had some kind of system that could magically absorb all of their heat and somehow cool it down….
Solar thermal photo by Skyline Innovations, courtesy of SEIA.