Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
Since I was a young boy, I was always interested in how things worked, right down the tiniest detail. I would disassemble and reassemble everything from watches, to televisions, to motors. While doing so, I was always thinking about why something was constructed or done in one way, versus another. It was with this same analytical curiosity that compelled me to question why solar water heating, so popular in buildings around the world, lost its popular, widely adopted use, and instead became seldom-used and not worth pursuing as a product in business.
When I first started my career in the renewable energy industry, I was taken by the simplicity and cost effectiveness of solar water heating. A single solar panel on the roof of a home provides reliable hot water for a home at a cost that is very competitive with electric and gas. Even today the rest of the world uses solar energy to heat water. Realizing this, I have always held the idea that traditional utilities that deliver electricity, water, gas, or other services on a monthly basis could provide yet another service - solar water heating.
In the utility business a solar system installed in a home is called “distributed generation.” But wait doesn’t “generation” beget electricity? Unfortunately, that is where solar water heating is disadvantaged; it is neither electricity, nor conservation, nor generation supply. Hence, solar water heating tends to be ignored by utilities and businesses despite that fact that it is four to seven times more cost effective than PV (photovoltaic), and takes up equally as less roof space. In most States that have renewable goals (RPS) solar water heating is not an eligible technology, for no good reason at all. When you talk to regulators or policy people that claim it is an oversight. As a taxpayer and ratepayer I want my dollars spent wisely, and so should you!
Perhaps solar water heating is ignored because it has the reputation of being yet another, trendy, confusing, high tech, “green” solution. Solar water heating has been used in the U.S. for over a century, unlike its commonly mistaken, flashier, ‘other’ solar product, photovoltaics. Also, contrary to popular misunderstanding, solar water heating is actually quite simple: a liquid circulates through a rooftop solar collector, absorbing the heat of the sun's energy and transfers that heat to your hot water storage tank. It’s simple technology and a simple value for the consumer who uses 20% of their annual household energy on water heating alone.
Twenty-five years ago I envisioned a solution to getting solar water heating out there that is perhaps as radical as it is logical. What is radical? In Lakeland Florida we are offering the customer a choice – a choice of heating their water with solar energy at the same cost as their electric or gas. How this program works is, we, the provider, install a solar water heating system, monitor it and maintain twice the amount of hot water stored as the typical design so the individual never runs out of hot water. Then, we maintain the system at $35 per month, for 20 years. How does the consumer pay for this, you ask? Well, next month, our utility partner will have a new line on the customer’s monthly bill ('Solar Hot Water Service' - $35). Much like how you would see extra channels paid for on a cable bill, or texting fees on a mobile phone bill. The utility collects the money monthly, takes a fee for the billing process and passes the balance on to us.
Furthermore, this program has the potential to be disruptive in that solar water heating can be the normal instead of the obscure; which means likely change for utility investors as less power is being provided by the current, traditional utilities. This business model provides flexibility in how the billing is processed as it does not necessarily have to come from only one specific utility, but rather, any local utility with billing capabilities. For example, the local energy utility doesn’t want to use less energy by switching to solar hot water heating and refuses to be the billing agent? Fine, then the billing agency at the water utility can do it, or the tax collector, or the cable provider, etc.
The common sense logic behind a model like this is equivalent to how disruptive this program stands to be for traditional utilities. The consumer gets a fixed rate from the solar water heating provider since the sun tends to rise and set every day without fluctuation - unlike the rising rates of fossil fuels based on finite supply. This means long term savings for the consumer. Furthermore, there is no cost to government spending to start a program as the arrangement is between the solar water heating provider, the utility, and the customer.
Finally, with programs like the one I envisioned, the guilt of wondering what my great-grandkids are going to think of our generation’s unnecessarily complicated electric heating of water, when we have a 27 million degree sun over our heads every day, can be resolved. Finally, a system of solar water heating that is affordable and actually makes sense is possible. Finally, there is recognition of how important a wide spread adoption of mass distributed solar thermal programs from politicians, businesses, and citizens alike. Perhaps, especially the ones that take things apart just to see how something works, and how it can work better.
I want to challenge our communities to help us, the Champions of Change recognized this week to make an impact in our communities. The people met and I stood with this week are willing to help you model what we have achieved locally.
We are all committed to change and we have the knowledge and experience to help you become a Champion of Change for your hometown. Learn more, do good, and tell others.
Dell Jones is the Senior Vice President of Regenesis Power, a thought leader in mass deployment of solar water heating and installation of utility scale solar power plants. Dell also serves as a Board Member of NABCEP, a non-profit organization dedicated to PV and solar thermal installation certification.