The slow growth in solar thermal in the United States compared to solar PV is not due to solar hot water technology, but to three core challenges
- The lack of public awareness and education about solar hot water
- The lack of innovative solar financing for commercial solar hot water
- The low cost of natural gas
There’s little that can be done about #3. Regardless of whether you’re a solar collector manufacturer, a solar thermal engineer, or a solar hot water installer, the solar industry can not affect the price of natural gas, which will most likely remain competitive for residential solar hot water—but not for high volume commercial solar thermal applications.
That is, hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, breweries, nursing homes, hospitals, fitness centers, colleges, and other applications all can find an ROI for solar thermal, especially in California with the CSI Thermal program.
So, while installers can’t do much about number 3, they can do something about the first two challenges.
1) The lack of public awareness and education.
For 2013 and beyond, it’s up to each individual solar hot water company to do its part to educate the public, media, businesses, and governments about the financial benefits of solar hot water.
Solar PV is often in the news, but that’s not the case for solar hot water, and it shows. So, there needs to be more news in 2013 about solar thermal savings and accomplishments, such as a brewery going solar, an apartment building, etc. The more that solar hot water is visible to potential commercial solar hot water clients, the less “strange” it will be to consider it as a cost saving energy solution.
2) The lack of solar hot water PPA and lease financing
Financing continues to be a challenge for large solar thermal projects. Banks and venture capitalists should be as generous to solar thermal projects as they are to solar PV projects, but they’re not. And yet, both solar technologies receive the same Federal 30% investment tax credit, as well as other tax advantages. So, there’s no reason why solar hot water shouldn’t have the same financing opportunities as solar electric projects.
Consequently, reaching out and educating banks and other finance companies about solar thermal should be another 2013 priority for those in the solar thermal industry. The more banks understand the solar thermal market and the potential ROIs for businesses—and themselves—the more banks will be open to setting aside funds for large scale solar thermal projects.
The above two goals will not be accomplished by themselves. It’s up to us, the solar thermal industry, to make it a point to educate customers, the media, and finance companies in 2013 about the benefits of solar hot water.