Solar Water Heating – An Essential Element of our Sustainable Future

“Solar water heaters are one of the most commercialized renewable energy technologies in the world and yet on a per capita basis, U.S. implementation ranks 28th in the world behind relatively undeveloped countries like Albania and Slovenia.”

Home water heating in American represents a significant portion of our national energy consumption and is split about 50/50 between electric and natural gas. Electric water heating represents about 9.1% of residential electrical consumption, 23.7% of residential natural gas consumption and about 5% of total U.S. gas consumption.

Even with renewed and frenetic drilling, domestic production of natural gas in the lower 48 has plateaued and we now rely on Canada to supply nearly 20% of our needs. However, Canada is nearing their own peak in natural gas production and as they reduce exports to meet Canadian demand, we are in race to delay the inevitable depletion and decline of our natural gas supply. Our hopes now rest on building the Alaskan pipeline to tap into arctic reserves and building several more liquid natural gas [LNG] terminals to allow us to compete for Middle Eastern and Russia gas exports. Whether either of these efforts will come in time to avoid near term shortages is unknown. In any case, as a nation we will soon be in “supply hot water.” Since we rely on natural gas to provide hot water indirectly via electricity from gas fired power plants and directly via gas water heaters, one way to help us out of the looming national gas shortage is with solar heated hot water.

Solar water heaters are one of the most commercialized renewable energy technologies in the world and yet on a per capita basis, U.S. implementation ranks 28th in the world behind relatively undeveloped countries like Albania and Slovenia. China leads the world with an installed base equivalent to 52,500 megawatts of energy, more than 30 times the installed base of the U.S., and other developed countries like Germany, Japan, Switzerland, France, Austria, and Australia all rank far ahead of the U.S. in per capita solar hot water implementation.

Why does the U.S. lag so far behind the rest of world in solar hot water implementation? The answers are many and include consumer concerns about ascetics and cost, a fragmented supplier base of relatively small companies, competing technologies that make make buying decisions confusing and difficult, and the resistance of vested interests. Perhaps the biggest reason for the U.S. lag in implementation are national and state energy policies that are both incoherent and inconsistent.

Since president Nixon signed the Project Independence bill in 1974, followed by Carter’s signing of the Energy Security Act in 1980, there have been dozens of energy bills passed with the intent of leading us toward the goal of energy independence. However, from 1974 to 2006 our oil imports have risen 191% from 1.27 billion barrels per year to 3.69 billion barrels and imports now amount to 65% of our total oil consumption. In addition, we have gone from being self sufficient in natural gas production to importing 19.5%1 of our needs. The 2005 Energy Bill was the latest attempt to cure our addiction to oil, but the bill was more a homage to “business as usual” and was packed with over $27 Billion dollars of subsidies to the oil, gas, coal, electrical generation, and nuclear industries.

The 2005 Energy Bill signed by President Bush includes over $6 Billion in Oil & Gas subsidies and $9 billion in coal subsidies, and $12 Billion in nuclear subsidies including:

  • geological and geophysical costs associated with oil exploration can be written off faster than present law, costing taxpayers over $1.266 billion from 2007 to 2015.
  • owners of oil refineries can now expense 50% of the costs of equipment used to increase a refinery’s capacity by at least 5%, this will cost taxpayers $842 million from 2006 to 2011
  • natural gas companies will save $1.035 billion by being able to depreciate capital expenditures at a faster rate that currently allowed by law
  • some royalty payments for drilling for natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico will be waived
  • exempts the gas industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act for a coalbed methane gas drilling technique called “hydraulic fracturing,” a likely source of pollution in our underground acquifers
  • increases the ability to exclude a broad range of oil and gas exploration and drilling activities from public involvement and impact analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act provides $1.612 billion in tax credits to invest in new coal power plants, $1.147 billion in tax breaks for owners of coal power plants to install pollution control equipment, and authorizes the appropriation of $4.8 billion of taxpayer money to help build a new fleet of coal power plants.
  • provides a production tax credit of 1.8-cent for each kilowatt-hour of nuclear-generated electricity from new reactors during the first eight years of operation, costing $5.7 billion in revenue losses to the U.S. Treasury through 2025

In contrast the 2005 Energy Bill provides 30% tax credit for commercial and residential solar hot water or PV (photovoltaic) installations. Unfortunately, for residential applications that credit is capped at $2,000 per homeowner and expires Dec 31, 2007.

Whether you consider the issues of climate change, looming natural gas shortages, or energy security, promoting solar water heating implementation in American homes should be a matter of national strategic importance. Considered from the perspective of dwelling in a post fossil fuel world, solar hot water will soon become a critical alternative energy technology for every homeowner.

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4 responses to “Solar Water Heating – An Essential Element of our Sustainable Future

  1. Very interesting post. Perhaps Congress can come up with a similar credit after the 2008 elections.

  2. Excellent post. After retiring last year, my parents moved to Shanghai, China to experience the “city vitality” (so they say). Solar water heater is almost ubiquitous. They bought an apartment in a high rise building, and the solar water heater came with it. Thanks for pointing out why the U.S. lags in that respect.

  3. In these times of increasing energy and fuel prices, solar water heating really makes sense. Government and industry in this country should do more to promote it and other renewable-energy applications.

  4. Last year I wanted to do something to escape from the rising cost of the energy and to help our environment. So I decided to install a solar thermal system and I have to say that works great! I live in San Diego where the sun is a year long resource. The team of Eco and Eco San Diego Solar has provided me a good service, fair price and very good quality. I just wish the City of San Diego came up before with the solar plan! This is a great opportunity for everybody wants to save money and help the environment!

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