Solar hot water systems: Why so few in Illinois?

Solar hot water system market in the United States collapsed in the mid-1980s

This past week, we received a phone call from a researcher hired by a California firm to determine why so few people in Illinois have installed solar hot water systems.

It seems reasonable to assume that cost savings offered by solar hot water would appeal to many more customers than is the case. According to Richard Orawiec, owner of a Michigan firm selling solar hot water systems, less than 0.01 percent of the homes in the United States use solar hot water systems.

Orawiec’s presentation at this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair Aug. 13-14 in Oregon provided a historical overview of solar hot water in the United States. The first patent for a solar hot water system was issued in 1891. By 1897, one-third of the households in Pasadena had solar hot water systems. They served half the homes there in the 1920s. Their presence was undercut by the discovery of cheap natural gas. Gas companies gave away free gas water heaters to lure customers away from solar systems.

In 1941, half the households in Miami were served by solar hot water. A marketing campaign by the electric utility, which gave away free electric hot water systems, undercut solar hot water there.

During the energy crisis of the Jimmy Carter years, solar hot water systems began to regain popularity. In 1986, when President Ronald Reagan ordered the solar hot water system Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House removed, the solar hot water system market in the United States collapsed. Within six months, 85 percent of the industry disappeared, and the United States lost its global technological lead.

Orawiec claims many Realtors in western Michigan recommend the removal of solar hot water systems to improve a home’s sale price and appeal. With today’s energy prices, such advice seems badly misplaced. Considering the general appeal of technological solutions to societal problems, it is ironic that relatively narrow aesthetic considerations impede the application of an effective technology. Up to 18 percent of the energy consumed in an American home is attributable to hot water. Total consumption is roughly equal to the output of all of the nuclear power plants operating in the country today.

Brandon Leavitt of Solar Service in Niles has found ways to diffuse aesthetic considerations. Ideally, panels should be placed at an angle of 52 degrees at our latitude. On new home construction with a steep roof pitch of 45 degrees, he sets the panels parallel to the roof pitch and adds slightly more capacity to compensate for lost output. On schools, park buildings, car washes and laundry operations, he merely places them far enough back on the roof to obscure their presence.

With no apparent relief in sight for energy prices, having free energy from the sun provide up to 70 percent of our hot water needs must appeal to the rational side of the human brain. Following the American retreat from another technology invented in the United States, China now manufactures 75 percent of all solar hot water systems sold in the world. By 2015, 40 percent of all homes in China will be served by domestic solar water heaters. How long will we continue to ignore this free domestic energy supply? How long will we continue to cling to the notion that our American lifestyle is non-negotiable?

From the Nov. 9-15, 2005, issue

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