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"Solar thermal jockeys for its place in the sun"

Oregon will plug $2.36 million in tax credits into boosting the solar thermal market here, aiming to revive a once popular method of heating water that now holds nascent promise for commercial water users.

"Solar thermal jockeys for its place in the sun"

Mt. Hood Athletic Club owner Paul Reed uses a solar pool heating system. (Image courtesy of Energy Trust.)

by Lee van der Voo
Sustainable Business Oregon >>click here for original article

Oregon will plug $2.36 million in tax credits into boosting the solar thermal market here, aiming to revive a once popular method of heating water that now holds nascent promise for commercial water users.

Solar thermal systems heat water, using energy collected from the sun. They work by raising temperatures in tubes of liquid, which loop through water-holding tanks. The systems are said to have potential for large water customers like athletic centers with heated pools, college dorms, agricultural food processors, and most notably hotels, which can spend between 50 percent and 60 percent of their utility costs on water heating alone. Businesses already using solar thermal systems include Willamette University, East Portland Community Center and the Mt. Hood Athletic Club in Sandy, Oregon.

Last month, the Oregon Department of Energy announced the pre-certification of $2.36 million in tax credits for additional solar thermal projects in 15 counties in Oregon through the Business Energy Tax Credit program. The list includes projects proposed at Lane and Mt. Hood Community Colleges, Western Oregon University and the cities of Coos Bay, Corvallis and Dallas. It also includes solar thermal plans for farms, fish markets, apartments, condos, hotels and a nursery.

Solar thermal projects received the smallest amount of BETC pre-certifications, by comparison solar electric projects received $83 million in pre-certified tax incentives.

Officials say their goal is to expand solar thermal use in Oregon, which lags behind photovoltaic, which turns solar energy into electricity.

“It hasn’t caught on as fast. Photovoltaic has had a lot more organized effort to promote it but solar thermal — dollar for dollar — has a lot more potential to produce energy,” said Rob Del Mar, policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy.

Doug Boleyn, who manages the commercial solar program for the Energy Trust of Oregon, is tasked with promoting awareness about solar thermal’s possibilities among businesses. The systems have a history of success in the residential sector, he said, but haven’t caught on yet with commercial consumers and purveyors.

“We just don’t have a very large solar thermal industry,” said Boleyn. “There are not big makers or sellers of solar water systems in the market.”

In the last six years that Energy Trust of Oregon has been tracking solar thermal projects, only 56 such systems have been built for business use, with another 14 projects now in the works.

By contrast, solar-thermal technology has been used in residences since the 1970s, Boleyn said, popularized by handy homeowners with aspirations of energy independence. By 1984, about 1 percent of all homes in Oregon were heating water using solar thermal energy, according to Boleyn. In those homes, solar thermal can heat 100 percent of hot water used during summer and about 30 percent used during a cloudy winter.

Del Mar said residential enthusiasm for solar thermal was hampered by a rash of shoddy installations and snake-oil sales in the 1980s.

“It gave the industry a black eye that was really hard to recover from so the (Solar Rating and Certification Corp.) is now in place to protect against that sort of thing,” he said. The SRCC now sets standards on the design and construction of solar thermal systems.

SRCC approved systems can earn up tax credits up to 50 percent from the state of Oregon, as well as tax credits from the federal government and incentives from Energy Trust of Oregon, which offers cash incentives to install systems for heating water and for heating swimming pools.

Those programs could now have benefits for commercial water consumers, particularly those with high hot-water demands. While solar thermal doesn’t require lots of water use to pay off, the effectiveness of such systems are proportional to their size, meaning businesses with big footprints and lots of rooftop or land space can generate massive amounts of hot water.

That’s good news at places like the Mt. Hood Athletic Club in Sandy, where a solar thermal system now heats the outdoor pool, with only occasional backup by a traditional pool heater.

“The last two summers we haven’t turned the heater on,” said club owner Paul Reed.

He estimates the solar thermal system saves him about $2,000 in utility costs between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the pool is open. Reed saved approximately $9,000 on the installation of his solar thermal system by using state and federal tax credits and rebates from Energy Trust of Oregon.

At a cost of $5,000, Reed said the solar thermal system at Mt. Hood Athletic Club paid for itself in two and a half years. He adds that it extends the life of his traditional pool heater, which otherwise costs about $3,000, installed, every three to five years.

Reed cautions businesses considering solar thermal, however, that the paperwork associated with incentives and tax credits is daunting. He suggests writing its completion into contracts with those who install the systems. Energy Trust of Oregon maintains a database of qualified contractors online.

“They are only getting started at realizing that this is another big revenue generating center for them,” Boleyn said.

As part of the push to broaden solar thermal’s use in Oregon, he is encouraging engineers, plumbers, general contractors and electricians to add solar thermal installation and design to their services.

Boleyn adds that Energy Trust of Oregon is also exploring solar thermal’s potential to heat air as a component of a building’s ventilation system.

 
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