Solar thermal Q&A: What are the trends in 2017, and how does an installer get started?

solar industry question

For an update on what’s happening with solar thermal, we chatted with Bob Leckinger, CEO of FAFCO, the oldest and largest US commercial and residential solar thermal manufacturer with more than 200,000 customers.

FAFCO recently launched the nation’s first-ever, commercially viable, combined solar electric/thermal system, CoolPV. This panel technology provides maximum energy output for residential and commercial customers, allowing them both power their house or building with electricity and use energy to heat water using the exact same roof space. In addition, the technology gives 60 percent more energy production from solar panels for customers.

What’s the big storyline for the PV/solar thermal segment in 2017?

Leckinger: The U.S. PV market has thrived, but the U.S. thermal market has not. Why? U.S. thermal was growing just a few years ago to a billion-dollar market. Today, it is less than $50 million and declining mostly due to very low cost natural gas. Solar thermal will not grow again until natural gas prices rise substantially.

Solar thermal does have a place in all electric markets and for solar pool heating. “Solar” today means electric, so opportunities are there for both in our current market. In addition, for years, solar thermal manufacturers have been trying to develop a solution that combines solar PV and thermal in a way that drives more energy output in a cost effective and efficient way. At FAFCO, we even spent 10 years working on this type of technology and, just last year, we were finally able to roll out a solution that meets this goal.

What are the upcoming solar thermal technology trends to note?

Leckinger: Thermal technology has not changed much since FAFCO introduced polymers to replace copper back in the late 1960s of the last century. Combining solar thermal and electric into a PVT (solar electric plus thermal) makes very good sense for the dealer for several reasons. Cooling the PV modules makes them deliver more electrical power. A hybrid or PVT panel can deliver as much as four times more total energy than energy delivered by a PV module alone. This means a PVT panel incorporating a 275W PV module can deliver over 1000 watts of thermal and electric power. This is good news for the dealer. His selling and installation cost can be amortized over much more power produced with one catch. There needs to be a thermal load.

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What customer opportunities should installers be paying attention to?

Leckinger: There are several attractive markets for PVT with large thermal loads, especially throughout the sunbelt region. Residential and commercial swimming pools are near the top of the list. Pools use a lot of low temperature energy during the summer when solar is most plentiful. Pools also provide a great deal of storage. Storage means the energy produced is used exactly when it is generated. But it gets better. Pools also use a good deal of electrical energy for pumping power. This in turn is provided by what FAFCO calls CoolPV.

In terms of incentives, the U.S. has the Federal Investment Tax Credit that is very beneficial and various state incentives like in California include a thermal incentive that often accelerated depreciation and financing that can tie to the end-user’s property tax. Other countries have a variety of incentives as well.

In addition, CoolPV is tested, certified, locally code compliant and passes the class A fire rating. Most of these are required to qualify for the incentives. Other requirements such as meeting the live weight roof loading standard must also be secured to meet the more rigorous codes.

Why might it make sense for a solar installer to also include solar thermal into their portfolio of options? And how would they get started?

Leckinger: Residential and commercial PV dealers today face an increasingly competitive market as PV becomes a commodity product with multiple product lines with little differentiation. Selling in the home is expensive and installations can be complex. PV dealers have an opportunity to differentiate their offering and increase value added when their electrical customers also have a thermal load.

Here are some insights that dealers should strongly consider for including solar thermal solutions into their service mix.

  1. Dealers in the sunbelt frequently run into prospects with swimming pools. These are ideal for a combination of thermal and electrical using the same valuable roof space. Commercial pools simply scale to much larger installations with much larger dealer value.
  2. In addition to prospects with pools, commercial pre-heat systems are very attractive to any large daily users of heated water in warm to hot climates with high energy cost. Examples of ideal commercial PVT customers are destination resort pre heat for central boilers, laundries, bottle washing, pharmaceutical and food processing, paper and textile production, etc.
  3. Incentives are helpful; pools are a great place to start and California has over a million residential and commercial pools. Florida, Texas and the sunbelt states have plenty of sunshine with both residential and commercial pools. The sunbelt states also have commercial pre heat customers with central boilers waiting to be pre heated.

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