New York and solar may not intuitively go into the same sentence. But solar is hardly the exclusive dream of the sunny southwest. Germany has long been a solar technology leader, Portland has a chance at becoming a large solar hub, and neighbor New Jersey has a university campus that in part relies on solar technology.
Anywhere from 55 to 65% of the energy New Yorkers use goes towards heating and hot water. But rather than slap solar panels on high rises in NYC and homes in upstate, one solar solution exists that could help New Yorkers save millions on energy costs annually.
New York State will soon implement a plan that includes training programs, financial incentives, and permitting improvements—all to encourage the installation of solar thermal heaters. It’s a technology that has spread worldwide—about 42 million of them total. But such systems have not gained traction in the USA. Meanwhile, Germans install about 200,000 systems a year, and the systems have become the norm in China. Even Albania is joining the solar thermal act.
But if all goes to plan, New York may change that dynamic. The State’s Solar Thermal Consortium insists that 1 million solar hot water collectors can find their way into the state by 2020. The Consortium believes that would lead to a savings of 6 million gallons of oil, 9.5 million square feet of natural gas, and avoid 320 gigawatt hours of electricity that would come from the grid—at a savings of US$175 million. Homeowners would be the largest beneficiaries, as about 70% of these systems would be installed in residential buildings.
Some risks obviously exist. Such a program relies on tax and financial incentives that may—or may not—exist at the end of the decade. Solar heating systems also have to overcome their reputation as inferior to traditional water heating systems. Such systems in Germany generally perform well; Chinese water heaters, on the other hand, have a capacity of water heating that would not work for most Americans. Then there are the promises of green jobs: advocates insist that such an industry could create up to 25,000 jobs that would remain in the state. Right now there are 36 in New York. That’s quite a leap of faith.
While solar technology keeps improving, issues over permitting and the length of time needed to achieve ROI has prevented many homeowners from investing in solar. Solar thermal technology would be a step in the right direction. If reality can match the promises, we may be in the early stages of another critical step that can help the USA achieve even more energy efficiency.