Whats an Easy Step You Can Take to Move Beyond Coal?
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by Craig Marlowe |
When many people think of clean or renewable energy solutions to burning fossil fuels, they think of offshore wind turbines, or solar electric projects. And yet right here in Maryland, we developed modern solar water heatinga small-scale clean-energy solution that can reduce coal-generated electricity demand by 10% for the average household with electric water heaters.
By Craig Marlowe—When many people think of clean or renewable energy solutions to burning fossil fuels, they think of offshore wind turbines, or solar electric projects. And yet right here in Maryland, we developed modern solar water heating—a small-scale clean-energy solution that can reduce coal-generated electricity demand by 10% for the average household with electric water heaters. It can be quickly implemented at a price competitive with fossil fuel and displaces no wildlife or wild places. And best of all, an initiative is underway to help you implement this clean energy solution in your home today.
The Forgotten Solution
Many people are surprised to learn that solar water heating was widely available in the United States prior to World War II. Why? Because it was a cost effective option! Even more surprising, modern solar water heating is a Maryland invention. In 1891, Maryland resident Clarence Kemp put a glass top over his water tank’s insulated enclosure and became the first person to beneficially harness the trapped heat (the greenhouse effect) to directly heat water. Some other surprising facts:
· Because of our high electricity prices and cooler water temperatures, solar water heating is more cost effective in Maryland than in Florida!
· Fifteen to twenty percent of US residential energy is used to heat water.
· Solar water heating is the only solar energy technology that is or can quickly become economically competitive with fossil fuels without incentives. Valley Electric Association in Nevada provides solar water heating with no Federal or State incentives for less than $30 per month, at or below the cost of the electricity needed to heat the same amount of water.
· Because of its high efficiency and lower costs, solar water heating requires one-third of the rooftop space, at one-third the cost, to produce the same amount of energy as solar photovoltaic (PV) technology.
· The U.S. lags significantly behind the rest of the world in solar water heating adoption rates.
How It Works
Water, or another fluid such as antifreeze, is circulated in a rooftop collector panel to collect and transfer solar “heat” to the water in your tank. The heated water stored in your tank means hot water is always available, even at night. In cloudy weather, the tank’s backup means of generating heat—electricity, natural gas, or propane—is utilized.
Mass-deployment of solar water heating doesn’t just make economic sense—it also makes environmental, technological and social sense. Since we use water heated by fossil fuels or electricity generated from fossil fuels, solar water heating can meaningfully reduce their use. People have been using the sun to heat water since the Roman bathhouses. The technology is simple, inexpensive and relatively maintenance free. Solar water heating is ideally suited for widespread distributed generation since its energy (hot water) is not readily transported and is best produced where it is needed. Generating energy at the point of use relieves stress on our electricity grid infrastructure. Recent grid failures in India and the U.S. remind us how fragile and over-burdened our infrastructure can be. Solar water heating could help reduce the need for new power transmission lines that fragment the landscape and destroy habitat. Finally, learning how to mass-deploy solar water heating today builds a bridge for other clean energy technologies to follow tomorrow.
A New Solar Water Heating Approach in Prince George’s County, Maryland
Initiated by the Maryland Legislature in 2010, the Task Force on Solar Hot Water Heating Systems, chaired by Senator Jim Rosapepe, found the main reasons Maryland consumers are not currently adopting solar water heating, despite generous incentives, are:
1) the current installed costs are too high for the benefits received,
2) the associated financing often has payments greater than the resultant energy savings, and
3) consumers have limited understanding of solar water heating’s value proposition, technology and vendors.
The Task Force concluded that re-positioning solar water heating as a service from a trusted provider, similar to other energy utilities, could mitigate these impediments and lead to mass-deployment. Other than the widely distributed nature of solar water heating equipment, which unlike conventional electrical generation would be located on buildings throughout Maryland, mass-deployed solar water heating is similar to other existing capital intensive utility services. Deploying solar water heating as a utility service addresses the above impediments to adoption by significantly lowering installed costs, eliminating the need for consumer financing, simplifying adoption and expanding the number of households that can benefit from solar water heating.
To further the Task Force’s effort and develop a replicable model, the Maryland Energy Administration and Prince George’s County have jointly commenced an initiative to determine how such a utility service could be offered throughout the County. The three major goals of the initiative are to demonstrate significantly lower installed costs for solar water heating, validate consumer demand for a cost effective program, and identify the necessary infrastructure and partners required to begin offering the program. Other participants include manufacturers, installers, lenders, utilities, the University of Maryland School of Business, and interested community groups. You can learn more at the Task Force’s web site: www.solarwatertaskforce.org.
How You Can Help
Over the next four months, this initiative will work with community groups such as the Sierra Club to develop a solar water heating program that maximizes consumer value, and eliminates the impediments to adoption.
You can become part of the discussion at email@example.com. Tell us if you have considered adopting solar water heating and what has prevented you from adopting it. If you haven’t considered solar water heating, what would convince you? Encourage others to join in this discussion. With your help, we can finish what Maryland started in 1891 by making solar water heating the first mass-deployed clean energy technology in the U.S. and take another step beyond coal.
Craig Marlowe is a principal of MC2, the program manager for the Joint Maryland Energy Administration/Prince George’s County Solar Water Initiative. He can be reached at 904.610.8728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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