By Jonathan Marshall
For thousands of Americans who produce clean energy at their homes or places of business, “solar” doesn’t mean photovoltaic cells that generate electricity. Instead, they are harvesting the sun’s energy to heat water, a commercial process first patented by a Baltimore inventor in 1891, long before the silicon era.
Today, PG&E is helping promote this environmentally friendly solution by offering residential and business incentives for new solar thermal installations—mostly for supplementing traditional gas-fired water heaters, but also for new uses such as commercial space or process heating and even for solar cooling. As of January 14, customers also can take advantage of new rebates for installing solar pool heaters at facilities such as schools and multifamily housing. The incentives are made possible as part of the California Solar Initiative.
Last year, eligible single family residential projects earned average incentives of $2,222 from PG&E. Incentives for multi-family residential and commercial installations averaged a whopping $85,511.
These incentives sweeten what is already a good deal for many customers. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that solar water heaters—which typically require a traditional backup heater—can cut water heating bills by 50 percent to 80 percent. After taxes, added cost of a new system with a 30-year mortgage comes to about $10-$15 a month. If you save more than that on your gas bill, “the solar investment is profitable immediately,” the DOE points out.
The Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Pleasanton did the math and took the plunge. It received a $47,485 incentive from PG&E to install solar collectors on its roof and an 800-gallon water tank as part of a broader energy efficiency retrofit that included low-wattage lighting, more efficient patio heating and a variable-speed exhaust system. The restaurant saves an estimated 3,704 therms of natural gas annually, which prevents 43,337 pounds of carbon emissions.
Solar water heaters today score high on reliability as well—a key factor for customer acceptance. “We haven’t had to think about our system, and we haven’t had any problems with it,” said Dave Fulwiler, managing director of PRB Management, a Taco Bell franchisee that installed systems on two of its Northern California restaurants with the help of PG&E incentives.
The solar industry estimates that more than 30,000 solar heating and cooling systems are installed each year in the United States. The total installed capacity is around 9 gigawatts (GW). Boosting that total to 300 GW by 2050—a goal the industry describes as ambitious but doable—would produce estimated savings of $61 billion a year on energy bills and avoid as many carbon emissions as produced by 64 coal-fired generators.
The United States has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to solar thermal investments. It ranks 36th in the world in solar thermal capacity per capita, behind such leaders as Austria, Cyprus, Greece, and Israel. China has almost 17 times more solar thermal capacity than the United States. Perhaps California’s incentives will help close that gap as more and more utility customers realize the opportunity to save energy and money while helping the state achieve a cleaner energy future.
Email Jonathan Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.